KNOXVILLE — As the University of Tennessee football team’s strength and conditioning coach, Johnny Long has been around weight rooms long enough to know that 600 pounds is more than most people can handle.
“That’s hard to roll,” Long said. “When it’s on the ground, it’s hard to push it.”
Tennessee offensive lineman Jacques McClendon wouldn’t necessarily agree.
McClendon, a Chattanooga native entering his junior year and his second full season as a starter for the Volunteers, set an all-time team record when he bench-pressed 645 pounds during the team’s summer workouts earlier this year.
Fellow junior lineman Vladimir Richard also lifted 600 pounds, easily topping the previous record of 550 pounds set by former offensive tackle Albert Toeaina.
“To see Jacques with those numbers is really impressive at such a young age,” Long said Wednesday in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, where players were made available to media for the first time since the end of spring practice.
“Kids are coming in to us from high school at strength levels that you hadn’t seen over the past 10 years. That’s really hats off to the high school coaches who are doing such a great job at developing the young athletes before they come to college.”
Starting junior linebacker Rico McCoy called McClendon “one of the strongest men in the United States” when asked about his weight-room feats.
“He’d have to be — 645 pounds benching. It’s crazy,” McCoy said with a smile of near-disbelief.
“I’m just happy he’s on my side. I was here when he did 555 — I would say his second or third week here or so. Some guys are just born with gifts, man. He was born with it.”
Whatever the case, McClendon’s mark is just one example of a summer full of impressive workouts by the Vols, Long said.
Expected to start at right guard on a veteran offensive line, McClendon has spent most of the offseason working to gain the flexibility needed to maneuver his 6-foot-3, 320-pound frame in a system that emphasizes lineman mobility.
“He started doing our yoga classes every two or three days a week,” Long said. “He didn’t like that too much at first, but now, now he’s bought into it and seen the flexibility is really what he needed.”
Senior defensive end Robert Ayers didn’t need as much convincing to participate in the yoga classes, which Long said are nothing new to UT’s offseason program.
“Every time (Long) would do it, I’d do it,” Ayers said. “That’s what people don’t understand. Little things like flexibility and stretches, those are the things that get you over the hump. It’s the little things that make you that much better.
“I mean, everybody’s going to come in here. They’re going to lift weights, they’re going to run, things like that. But the little things like stretching, that helps you not cramp up in the fourth quarter. That helps you be able to run that little bit faster — the difference between a 4.38 (40-yard dash) and a 4.34.
“It don’t look big, but it’s big. It wins games.”
Tennessee, coming off a 10-4 season that included a Southeastern Conference East Division title and an Outback Bowl win over Wisconsin, is breaking in a new offensive coordinator in former Richmond coach Dave Clawson and a new starting quarterback in Jonathan Crompton.
That hasn’t kept the Vols from being confident, Long said, heading into next month’s fall camp.
“Each team is different each and every year,” Long said. “I think this team has its own identity. (They are) still looking at getting on the field and proving to themselves what they have. I think I see a team that has confidence. ...
“I can tell you that I think this team has confidence going into the season in their abilities, which I think is a big plus.”
Senior wide receiver Josh Briscoe, one of several veterans returning on an offense with experience at almost every position, said this year’s team also has impressed him with its work ethic this summer.
“Just coming in, I’ve seen this team work harder than last year’s team,” Briscoe said. “We have the talent, and we’ve been working hard. We’ve just got to carry that over into what we do in the fall.”