The last time a coaching change occurred in the Colorado football program five years ago, a seismic shift in the strength and conditioning program came with it.
Former coach Dan Hawkins spent much of the first two years of his tenure telling anyone who would listen about the strength deficiencies in Boulder and how the old-school, heavy lifting philosophy of Jeff Pitman would turn things around.
It's safe to say it didn't exactly work out as Hawkins and Pitman planned.
New coach Jon Embree took over in December after spending much of the past five years in the National Football League, and he decided to bring a man adept at improving million dollar bodies in that league with him to Boulder.
The hiring of new strength and conditioning coach Malcolm Blacken from the Washington Redskins in late December signaled another dramatic change in the way the Buffs will be built going forward. The emphasis in the program no longer will be on power cleans, squats and bench press lifting and how much a player can lift in the weight room, but whether he can transfer it to the field on Saturdays.
Blacken said he uses a mix of some heavy lifting combined with functional lifts, flexibility, movement and resistance training to prepare his players for a game in which they are constantly moving and using leverage and balance to win.
"There are some guys in the NFL that can't power clean 300 pounds, but let me tell you this, they will put on that helmet and shoulder pads and knock a guy out who can power clean 400 pounds," Blacken said recently during an afternoon interview in his new Dal Ward Center office. "It's all about can you transfer it, and that's why we do functional things in here because if you can't transfer it on to the field, it doesn't matter if you can power clean 350 if you play like you power clean 170."
Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen said the Buffs have enjoyed the change. He said Blacken immediately grabbed players' attention with a different approach and his NFL pedigree. Blacken also has players write down every thing they do in each workout and then he goes through it with them later.
"We love him," Hansen said. "He's a lot different and he does a lot more different exercises. I think it's a big change and it's a good change."
Hansen said his early impression of the offseason program is that it appears to be much more competition based as well. He said there was a lot of competition during the offseason program under Pitman in the past, but under Blacken, there is competition down to each repetition.
"The one thing we don't like is the runs are a lot harder," Hansen said when asked to name something that the team might be struggling to adjust to. "That's good though. We don't mind them, but they're harder. It's just a lot more stuff. With coach Pit, we ran, but we did some work and we got out of there. With coach Blacken, it's a lot more."
The Buffs' new strength coach sometimes changes what he wants from players in the midst of a run or workout. Blacken said he does so to mimic what players experience on game days with sudden changes in momentum and possession. It's one of the subtle techniques he brought with him from the pro level.
Blacken has the Buffs split up into four different training groups. He said he loves working and spending time with offensive and defensive linemen and is a true believer in the cliché that the game is won in the trenches.
"I like that d-lineman to look over and see what the o-lineman is lifting," Blacken said. "Coach Embree likes that. We want guys to compete in the weight room. We want them to compete out there at practice. We want them to compete when they run against each other. That's what it's all about, competing."
Blacken is a former running back from Virginia Tech who has worked in three different college programs (South Carolina, George Mason and Virginia) before spending 15 years in the NFL where he worked for coaches such as Mike Shanahan, Steve Mariucci, Norv Turner, Mike Martz, Jim Schwartz, Rod Marinelli and Marty Mornhinweg.
Blacken and his family had never really been to Colorado for any significant length of time and knew only the basics about the school and community. So why did this 45-year-old opt out of his NFL job to move nearly all the way across the country to such unfamiliar surroundings?
"Jon Embree," Blacken said. "I think coach Embree has the intangibles you've got to have to coach football at any level because he's a teacher. Just to see him coach the tight ends and hear him talk to his guys, a small group, and see his interactions with the other positions on the team over the last year, I was like, 'OK, I like this guy.'"
Blacken said in their brief time together in Washington D.C., his family and Embree's family became close. Blacken has been married for 15 years and has a daughter in the sixth grade and a son in the fourth grade.
While Blacken said he knew all he needed to know about the program and the community from his discussions with Embree, he also talked with other friends from the NFL about making the move. He said former Denver Broncos players such as Vaughn Hebron and Kenoy Kennedy gave the area a thumbs up.
Blacken said former Cincinnati Bengals running back Rudy Johnson told him that during his college recruitment, he chose Auburn over Colorado because it was closer to home, but he always remained fond of the school and the area.
The first month of the offseason program under Blacken is designed to expose weaknesses in each player and the entire team, "because if I don't know where you're at, I don't know where you can go," Blacken said.
He is focused first on improving the Buffs' core strength, an area, he frankly says was lacking when he arrived.
"I don't know whose fault that is and I don't care whose fault it is," Blacken said. "I know that's going to be a focus of ours to make sure that gets corrected right away. It's going to take us a little time. But we have a good group of guys who welcomed the change."
Blacken said the entire game depends on core fitness.
"When you go and engage with a guy at the line of scrimmage or whatever the case may be, the first thing you're going to do is activate your core and plant your feet in the ground," Blacken said. "The power comes from the ground and it's going to stabilize itself in the core. If you have a weak core, you're going to get tossed around."
Recruiting class grows
Colorado coaches received two more oral commitments from a pair of North Carolina recruits who are cousins.
Jermane Clark, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound athlete, who will likely play defense, and Rashad Hall, a 6-foot, 195-pound running back both committed during their official visit to Boulder.
The two players transferred from separate high schools last year to Oak Ridge Military Academy where they played their final season together. They became the 11th and 12th players to commit in this cycle. CU has 13 scholarships dedicated to this class at this point including one for Alex Lewis, an offensive lineman from Phoenix, who signed with Colorado last year and delayed his enrollment until this year.
Colorado officially announced the hiring of quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer on Monday. Scherer comes to CU with more than 30 years of coaching experience. He spent the past six years in the National Football League with the Cleveland Browns and more recently with the Carolina Panthers.
"I'm excited to be here. It's a good opportunity," Scherer said in a press release from the school. "To come in at the beginning of a new staff when there is a lot of enthusiasm and good coaches and good people around, I'm looking forward to it a lot."