Faion Hicks didn’t have to think long about the benefits he’s felt from the changes made to the University of Wisconsin football team’s strength program this offseason.
“Shoot, I’m healthy. That’s something,” Hicks said. “I can say we haven’t really had many guys go down this camp, which is a good thing, especially with a lot of soft-tissue injuries. That’s was kind of good to see. Everybody noticed it like, wow, we have a lot more guys healthy than we did in the past. So that’s a testament to what coach Snee did in the offseason.”
Hicks, a fifth-year senior cornerback, had never been able to practice every day of a training camp before this fall.
The Badgers — who are ranked 12th by The Associated Press and open their season at 11 a.m. Saturday against No. 19 Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium — promoted from within when they hired Shaun Snee to be the program’s director of strength and conditioning in February. Snee was the second in command of the weight room for Ross Kolodziej, who now coaches the team’s defensive line.
Snee waited to make wholesale changes to the program Kolodziej had put together until the summer, but he was planting seeds early on in terms of the mentality he wanted to create in the weight room. In the months before spring practices, UW players were challenged to hit repetition max-outs — the most weight they could in a particular lift 10, five or three times, depending on the week — along with lighter conditioning work.
“We like to do it that way just mentally so they know, ‘Man, I got more (inside) me. I can push it harder, I can go further,’” Snee said.
After the Badgers wrapped spring practices, the summer phase of Snee’s new program took hold, and he had players’ routines more specifically designed for the positions they played. Both sides of the ball were divided between bigs (linemen), mids (linebackers, tight ends, others) and skill (receivers and secondary) positions, with each having different ratios of lifting and speed work to complete each day.
For example, on heavy-running days such as Fridays, linemen had 800 yards of sprints to run in about 10-15 minutes with short breaks, while skill players were at about 2,000 yards in 18 minutes. In the weight room, bigs had more weight per exercise and more lifts to perform.
A number of players reported being stronger and faster than ever, and Snee said every player hit personal-bests in at least one of the program’s core lifts of bench press, squat and cleans.
“It’s allowed each guy to kind of focus, be a little selfish in an unselfish way,” senior safety Scott Nelson said. “They know that if they get better, the team gets better.”
The new system was enough of a change to bring a different energy to the workouts, and the competitiveness of the Badgers players was incorporated as well. Senior safety Collin Wilder said every running session became a race and each lift saw players trying to out-do one another.
Snee’s existing relationship with the players — he’s been on the strength staff since 2015 — allowed him to know when he could push them and when he needed to pull back the reins. When a player told him about a soreness or something else affecting their workouts, he’d find modifications so the player could get the work done without exacerbating the issue.
Either Snee or one of the assistant strength coaches — John Graves, Kyle Costigan, Ty Taylor and Devin Woodhouse — perform the workouts assigned to a position group and use their own experiences to anticipate days when players may a break.
“You have to be in tune with your team,” Snee said. “You have to know every single one of these guys, relationships are important. If you don’t know the guys and know the vibes of the team, if you can’t feel that, you’re going to overwork them. You’re going to fatigue the system and they’re not going to get as much rewards out of it.
“Yes, the program is science-based, of course … I use a lot of that to build the program initially, but then it’s all based on feel after that.”
After working for UW coach Paul Chryst as a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh, Snee jumped at the chance to join the Badgers’ program. Snee said Chryst is extremely helpful providing practice plans down to the snap so that the strength coaches can tailor workouts during camp and the season.
They’ll continue to push players in the weight room even during game weeks — Snee says the goal is to continue having players reach personal-bests in the season — but the growth achieved this offseason has already been noticeable.
“What Shaun did and the strength staff did, there’s so many layers to it, in my opinion,” Chryst said. “What you appreciate is everyone’s invested in it and they recognize that. Then it’s how do you find a way to get them to take ownership of it? And I think they’ve done a nice job with that.”
A game-by-game look at the Badgers' 2021 football schedule
WEEK 1: vs. Penn State
Date: 11 a.m. Sept. 4 on FOX
All-time series: UW trails 9-10
Last meeting: UW lost 22-10 in 2018
Key returner: WR Jahan Dotson posted five games of over 100 yards receiving and was a catalyst of the team’s four-game winning streak to end last season.
Note: The Nittany Lions’ losing season last year was their first under coach James Franklin and the program’s second since 2004.
WEEK 2: vs. Eastern Michigan
Date: 6 p.m. Sept. 11 on FS1
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 24-3 in 1996
Key returner: QB Preston Hutchinson averaged 277 yards per game last season.
Note: The Eagles have had two winning seasons since 2010.
WEEK 3: vs. Notre Dame (Soldier Field, Chicago)
Date: 11 a.m. Sept. 26 on FOX
All-time series: UW trails 6-8-2
Last meeting: UW lost 31-7 in 1964
Key returner: Safety Kyle Hamilton, who led the Irish in tackles, had six pass breakups last season.
Note: Former Badgers QB Jack Coan will be in the running to be the starting QB for the Irish after transferring this winter.
WEEK 4: vs. Michigan
Date: Oct. 2
All-time series: UW trails 17-51-1
Last meeting: UW won 49-11 on Nov. 14, 2020
Key returner: WR Ronnie Bell was a bright spot on an offense that struggled with inconsistent quarterback play.
Note: Despite the Wolverines’ 2-4 season, the program extended the contract of coach Jim Harbaugh and posted the second-best recruiting class in the conference.
WEEK 5: at Illinois
Date: 2:30 or 3 p.m. Oct. 9
All-time series: UW leads 43-37-7
Last meeting: UW won 45-7 on Oct. 23, 2020
Key returner: QB Brandon Peters, who gives the Illini some stability under center while they adjust to a new coaching staff. The Illini are looking to bounce back from a tough 2020 that included a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Note: First-year coach Bret Bielema, the former UW coach, has said he envisions a three-man front for the defense, a major shift that already has prompted the transfer of DE Owen Carney Jr.
WEEK 6: vs. Army
Date: Oct. 16
All-time series: First meeting
Last meeting: N/A
Key returner: QB Tyhier Tyler (above) led the Black Knights in rushing (578 yards) despite only playing in seven of their 12 games.
Note: This could be a difficult test for the Badgers, preparing for a triple-option attack in the middle of the conference season.
WEEK 7: at Purdue
Date: Oct. 23
All-time series: UW leads 50-29-8
Last meeting: UW won 45-24 in 2019
Key returner: DE George Karlaftis (above), who was sidelined by injuries last season, is a potential game-wrecker off the edge. He helped land his younger brother Yanni Karlaftis, a four-star OLB who is the highest-ranked player in Purdue’s class and was considering UW.
Note: Last season’s game was canceled due to UW’s COVID-19 outbreak, but the Badgers haven’t lost to Purdue since 2003.
WEEK 8: vs. Iowa
Date: 11 a.m. Oct. 30
All-time series: UW leads 48-44-2
Last meeting: UW lost 28-7 on Dec. 12, 2020
Key returner: QB Spencer Petras made strides in first year as a starter, but with defense losing studs up front and the offense losing playmaker Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Petras will be asked to do more.
Note: Iowa’s win over the Badgers at Kinnick Stadium was just their second in the rivalry since 2010.
Week 9: at Rutgers
Date: Nov. 6
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 31-17 in 2018
Key returner: WR/KR Aron Cruickshank (above) — who transferred from UW last season — provided a number of big plays in the return game en route to winning the league’s returner of the year award and was the team’s second-leading receiver.
Note: UW has only surrendered 27 points in three matchups against the Scarlet Knights.
WEEK 10: vs. Northwestern
Date: Nov. 13
All-time series: UW leads 60-37-5
Last meeting: UW lost 17-7 on Nov. 21, 2020
Key returner: Safety Brandon Joseph (above) earned All-American honors as a freshman after tallying six interceptions, eight pass breakups and 56 total tackles.
Note: Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz — a former assistant coach at UW — retired after last season.
WEEK 11: vs. Nebraska
Date: Nov. 20
All-time series: UW leads 10-4
Last meeting: UW won 37-21 in 2019
Key returner: QB Adrian Martinez (above), who battled for his position with Luke McCaffrey last season, comes into the season as the presumed starter after McCaffrey announced he was transferring.
Note: UW has an 18-point average margin of victory over Nebraska in its seven-game win streak over the Huskers.
WEEK 12: at Minnesota
Date: Nov. 27
All-time series: UW leads 62-60-8
Last meeting: UW won 20-17 in OT on Dec. 19, 2020
Key returner: RB Mo Ibrahim (above), winner of the Big Ten’s running back of the year award last season, scored 15 touchdowns and set multiple program records last season.
Note: The Gophers have attacked the transfer market hard, landing seven transfer players this winter.