Strength coach Herbert builds 'quick rapport' with Wolverines

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan strength coach Ben Herbert

Paris — When Ben Herbert took over as Michigan’s strength coach in January, he could not have known exactly what he was inheriting.

The evaluations began immediately.

“There were certain things I felt good about and certain things I did not feel as good about,” Herbert said Wednesday before the team departed from the hotel for a mile and a half walk to the Eiffel Tower on the Wolverines’ last full day in Paris during their spring trip. “I think the key was we had to identify where our deficiencies were and ultimately how we were going to address them.

“We were able to do that with all of our guys in their baseline assessments. And just getting their viewpoint of training, how they viewed walking into the room, what did they think of it? On top of what we needed to do physically, there were some things that we needed to improve upon, there were some things I felt pretty good about, and it’s just a matter of going to work.”

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Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. earlier this spring shared a story about receiving a text from an unknown number 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.’”

Herbert was the text sender and his message was blunt  there’s work to do, and it’s time to start now.

“He was one of them that I reached out to right away because I was anxious, and I knew the boys just got done playing a (bowl) game,” Herbert said. “I wasn’t interested in beating him or the guys up with training because I understand the amount of stress they’d be exposed to, yada, yada.

“One of the points I wanted to make was, we have some time, but we don’t have time to waste. There was some soft tissue stuff and some different things outside of what he viewed was going to be done. And I was able to start developing that relationship. That was the key  I didn’t want to wait to develop that rapport, I wanted to do it right out of the gate.”

Herbert followed Bret Bielema from Wisconsin to Arkansas where he spent the last five seasons. Before that, he spent 11 seasons with his alma mater, Wisconsin. He was four-year letterwinner as a defensive lineman.

It didn’t take long for Herbert to make inroads with his new team.

“In my opinion, one of my and my staff’s strengths is we’re able to develop a quick rapport, making sure guys understand what our goals are, and ultimately we want to create an environment that you guys are going to love being in," he said. "Our focus is to help you be the best you can be and do what it is you say you want to do.

“What it is we always say is understanding what you want to do is a lot different than what you’re willing to do. They start to understand how we conduct our business, how we communicate, how we coach, then like any relationship you start to bridge that gap quickly. And we needed to do that, and I think we did do that.”

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Heading into his fifth month on the job, Herbert has an idea who the strongest players are on the team.

“There are different guys that have different strengths,” he said. “I think top to bottom if we were going to do 25 different things I would have to say Ben Mason is in there. There’s some pound-for-pound guys, Carlo Kemp is in there. Rashan (Gary) is one of those guys.

“Cesar Ruiz is pretty well-balanced. That’s a 315-pound guy who can do 25 single-leg squats. Josh Ross is another guy who does some pretty freaky things. Fortunately, there are enough guys who have some pretty special capabilities. It just depends on what you look at from an evaluation standpoint.”

Herbert’s philosophy is take a comprehensive approach.

“It comes down to first making sure they understand the importance of fueling their body, which most don't know the importance that water and fluid plays, the importance that meal frequency plays, the role that sleeps plays  all of those factors play a significant role in your ability to develop or they play a significant role in hindering your development," he said.

“Then from a training standpoint, tapping into their lower body. Usually, there’s a lot of room to be tapped into. The largest muscles in the body are in the legs. And then their pulling movements  the upper back, the lower back. Really the backside of their bodies are untapped when they come in from high school or other institutions. So from a development standpoint, we start there. The key is creating an environment that you want to give us your best and creating an environment that brings out the best in you, and ultimately you bring out the best in one another, but an environment you can thrive in  energetic and focused. It’s an environment that you like/love to be in.”

What has appealed to the players is the fact Herbert played the game and understands how proper conditioning and diet translate to playing each position.

“He gets that link,” defensive end Chase Winovich said during spring practice, referring to Herbert understanding the players’ perspective. “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 understood that link, and coach Herbert does a great job of that. It’s huge. It makes you want to come in and work harder.”

Herbert knows that having playing experience gives him an advantage in terms of perception and credibility among the players.

“One of the biggest things is guys have a feel for what some of my experiences have been, and that’s part of it,” he said. “But also when you’re talking to those guys and coaching and communicating with them, they understand you’re truly there to help them get to where you want to be.

“When they understand that you understand, that’s powerful. If you don’t get it so to speak, guys get that. When you can bridge that gap with the experiences you’ve had as a player and coach, it makes it a lot easier to facilitate that relationship.”

When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Herbert about the job, they had what Herbert described as the easiest conversation he’s “ever had with anyone.”

“I think philosophically how he views things and ultimately things he takes pride in and things he believes in are very in line with the things that I’ve been taught and learned to view as important over the years," Herbert said. "It was a very smooth undertaking. The conversation was effortless. Once we had a chance to get in front of each other and spend some time face-to-face, it seemed like it was going to be a very good fit, and fortunately, it’s been just that.”