Devin Bush Jr. talks about Michigan's new strength coach Ben Herbert. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Devin Bush Jr. received a curious text on his cell phone in January.
“‘Yo, who is this?’” Bush said the text read. “And I’m like, ‘How are you going to text my phone and ask me who is this? Yeah, this is Devin.’”
It was Ben Herbert, Michigan’s new director of strength and conditioning, and that was his icebreaker.
“He was just like, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do, come and get this work in,” Bush said last week after practice. “I’m like, ‘Coach, we just got off a game, like, let me rest.’ He’s like, ‘Ah, ain’t no time to rest. You’ve got a lot of things to accomplish this year with the team and yourself and let’s get rolling.’”
And from there, the Wolverines began 6 a.m. workouts.
Herbert followed Bret Bielema from Wisconsin to Arkansas, where he spent the last five seasons as strength coach. Before that, he was with the Badgers for 11 seasons, including the final four as strength coach. Herbert was a four-year letter-winner at defensive line for the Badgers.
There were several changes on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s staff this offseason, but most impactful initially for the players — and, really, it can be argued throughout their careers — was the addition of Herbert.
During winter conditioning and in the offseason, the strength coach is who the players see every day. He is the one they answer to. He is the one calling the shots to make them stronger and more agile and better prepared for the upcoming season. In many ways, he's the coach to whom they all become closest.
Several players said they’ve gained some weight but have become faster and feel better since Herbert’s arrival. He also hired a staff that includes a nutritionist.
“The man means business, and he does a great job explaining exactly how what we do translates to the football field,” defensive end Chase Winovich said. “I felt like the stuff we do, from the hand work to striking to the strength stuff, I felt like I was prepared as ever if not more prepared (for spring practice), and that’s a large credit to him.”
Winovich said the fact Herbert played the game earns added respect from the players.
“He gets that link,” Winovich said. “I’m not pointing out different coaches, but some people I’ve worked with, even in my whole life, I don’t think they’ve understand that link, and coach Herbert does a great job of that. It’s huge. It makes you want to come in and work harder.”
Defensive end Rashan Gary started winter conditioning at 280 pounds and was up to 288 when spring practice began.
“That’s the biggest I’ve been in a while and I feel good, fast and explosive,” Gary said. “He’s putting on weight and making people more fast, explosive, stronger, so having that type of guy around makes things better.
“He the best. I can’t even describe it. Since he been here, he changed the mindset of us, just coming in every day ready to work and ready to push each other to be the best we can. Having a guy like that that’s constantly on your back, that constantly wants greatness for you. It’s great having a person like that pushing you along. Having coach Herb part of the family now is a great addition and I’m happy.”
Karan Higdon talks about the Wolverines' strength training. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
The environment Herbert has created is different, too.
“They brought an electricity into the weight room,” tight end Zach Gentry said. “There’s a lot of noise, a lot of stuff going on. A lot of people are excited about it. It’s been good for me, because I’ve gained some muscle and some weight right away.”
So have running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. Higdon fluctuated from 190-195 late in the season and is now close to 200 pounds. Evans has gained four pounds and is 214.
Higdon credits, in part, the soft-tissue work Herbert has the players going through before workouts, the “little things” he said that keep the players healthy while focusing on recovery after training.
“I feel a lot better,” Higdon said. “Gotten stronger, gotten bigger. I feel faster. I feel more in shape. They’ve done a great job this offseason.”
Evans said adding the weight is helping him improve this spring as he focuses on pass protection.
“I feel a lot more elusive and I just feel like I want to jump out of my skin like coach Harbaugh,” Evans said.
Herbert has brought different ideas in terms of lifting and conditioning.
“Everything we did was completely new,” Bush said. “Lifts we never have done before. Variations running-wise and field work we have never done before. It was all new to us, and we picked up on it fast.”
Bush said he already has seen overall gains, and not just from the physical standpoint, since Herbert took over the program.
“He really made us grow up,” Bush said. “We had to take things in perspective and we had to hold each other accountable for things we had done on the field and off the field. He really made you dig deep and realize this sport is hard and if you want to be successful in this sport then you have to put the hard work in. He expressed that to us, and he expressed about just taking of yourself as an athlete and carrying yourself a certain way.”
Winovich relates to Herbert, in part, because they’re both from the Pittsburgh area. But in terms of the team, he has seen nothing but positives since the arrival of Herbert and his strength staff.
“This is overarching — my view of Michigan football, I feel like we’re making vertical changes rather than collateral moves,” Winovich said. “Coach Herbert, he’s one of the best in the business. We brought him in. We’re making smart decisions, and I feel like it’s helping this feeling of an upward trajectory collectively as a program.
“I’m not down talking anybody. It was great, it helped me become a great player. But I’m liking what I see.”