Angelo Mangiro exhaled and exploded upward, driving 455 pounds toward the ceiling of Penn State’s weight room on Thursday afternoon.
Mangiro’s weight-room battle cries — he grunted and screamed as he pushed himself to the limit with each grueling squat rep — were answered by his teammates’ encouraging words. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg stood to Mangiro’s right, offensive guard Brian Gaia to his left and strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt directly behind him in case the lineman needed help.
With one last surge and a loud scream, Mangiro gutted out his sixth and final rep, racked the bar and lumbered off to wild cheers from his teammates. Head coach James Franklin stood on a bench about 10 feet away, his glasses down low on his nose, peering over the rimless lenses in Mangiro’s direction.
He can’t wait to see that power put to use on the football field. Galt can’t either, especially considering he’s calling this squad “one of the stronger teams I’ve ever had” in his 30 years of coaching. And they only have about two weeks to wait.
Galt has a few more players to test out before the Nittany Lions conclude winter workouts this weekend. They’ll get a brief reprieve before spring football starts on March 20.
“That’s the big thing. Everybody is so excited to get back on the field,” Galt said. “My job is to prepare them off the field so that Coach Franklin and his staff can put that on the field and it’s all about what you do on the field and I think they’ve really embraced that concept and are really excited to see how much better football players they can become with their physical improvement.”
And the improvements have been incredible, he said.
Most of the players who worked out in the Lasch Building on Thursday have made striking gains in Year 2 of Galt’s grinding program focused on improving explosiveness through movement-based training. Power clean numbers are way up, squat and bench press totals have increased and 40-yard dash times have improved tremendously from when Galt first tested the squad last season.
While his is a program similar to what former strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald implemented under Bill O’Brien, Galt’s rugged regimens extended through the regular season. With just over half the roster returning to the weight room in early January, Galt said the familiarity with expectations and processes have made his second winter lifting program much more effective.
“It’s a big adjustment to play football and then the next day have to come in and lift heavy after you’ve been hitting,” Galt said. “But they did a great job all year.”
The increases caused Galt to go back and look at his records from previous seasons at other programs. In the last five years he said the most players he’d ever had clean 300-plus pounds was 43. This month, 56 Nittany Lions have exceeded 300 pounds in the power clean.
Seventeen players turned in vertical jumps of 35 inches or more, while 21 posted broad jumps of 10 feet or more, after just five did so last year.
Forty-yard dash times also are quicker, Galt said, proof that the explosive training is paying off. Nine players ran sub-4.6-second 40s last season. Now, 19 have clocked in under 4.6. Of the 93 players Galt has tested so far, 74 have turned in 40 times below 4.99.
“That’s a very significant improvement in explosiveness,” Galt said.
He expects to see more strength in the trenches this season, too. Galt has been most impressed with the defensive ends and offensive linemen.
Penn State lost its two primary defensive ends in C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes, but had five who cleaned 335 pounds and above. While Mangiro went through his squats, guard Derek Dowrey blasted his way through five reps of over 500 pounds nearby.
“We have to have some size, we have to have some strength, there’s no doubt,” Galt said. “But you guys know that I’m big into movement. I’m big into athleticism and being able to get it done on the field in a movement capacity and they’ve gotten really strong, but their movement is so much better than it was last year.”
The real tests await.
“They’re ready to go, they’ve been loving it, they’re motivated like crazy,” Galt said. “It’s just been kind of like holding a wild horde back right now.”
Early enrollees getting involved
Galt likes what he sees from true freshmen offensive linemen Sterling Jenkins and Paris Palmer and quarterback Tommy Stevens.
The trio of early enrollees have hit the ground running, Galt said. Jenkins and Stevens have been quite comfortable in their workouts as both utilized similar training regimens at Baldwin High School and Decatur Central (Indianapolis), rexpectively. Jenkins, a vaunted recruit who was an early target for Penn State due to the lack of depth at offensive line, has already put on 16 pounds. He was listed at 307 when Penn State added him to its official roster earlier this year.
Palmer, who last played at Lackawanna College, is being brought along a bit slower.
“Paris, we’re kind of keeping his weight in the 285-290 range right now while he gets acclimated to this style of training,” Galt said. “He’s never really worked out like this before. But you tell that guy to jump and he’s, ‘How high?’”
Galt said Stevens is up 13 pounds. He was originally listed at 6-foot-4, 187 pounds when he enrolled in January.
Galt’s promise to make Hackenberg “bulletproof” last winter appears to have paid off.
The quarterback offered a few waves and smiles and looked no worse for wear Thursday, two months removed from a sophomore season in which he was sacked a school record 44 times and hit countless others. Despite being on the wrong end of all those violent collisions, Hackenberg didn’t miss a game and only yielded his spot to then-backup D.J. Crook late in a loss to Northwestern.
During winter workouts last year, Galt and his staff focused on strengthening Hackenberg’s shoulders and elbows and that focus has remained. Now, however, Galt is working to make Hackenberg more mobile inside and outside the pocket.
“Hack, he took a pounding as we all know,” Galt said. “He had a couple of little bumps and bruises that he plowed through because he is a tough guy, but we’re taking the same approach this year. One thing, if injury prevention and shoulder stability was a big priority last year, we feel great with the shoulder stability, knocking on wood, he’s really improved there. Obviously he’s got some great arm strength so the one thing I’m really trying to work with him now is to really continue with his movement stuff. His speed, his agility.”
Hackenberg ran a 4.74 40-yard dash on Monday while weighing in at 235.
Pro Day approaching
Sam Ficken bounced around Penn State’s weight room on Thursday. He’s used the Lasch Building as his primary training center in preparation for the NFL Draft in May.
After he joined linebacker Mike Hull, safety Adrian Amos, offensive tackle Donovan Smith and tight end Jesse James at the NFL Combine last month, Ficken’s next opportunity to perform for scouts will come at Penn State’s Pro Day on March 19. With pro day rapidly approaching, those former Nittany Lions are beginning to make their way back to town to begin final preparations.
Hull, Amos, Smith and Olaniyan have already returned, Galt said, with more expected to do so in the coming days.
“We’re trying to help them a little bit and get their bodies back to the kind of shape that we want to do for our pro day,” Galt said. “It’s nice to have those Combine guys because they can pick and choose what events they do on our pro day. So a lot of those guys did really well at the combine so we’ll just let them sit on those numbers and focus on a couple of things they really want to do to improve themselves.”