Finding strength in change: IMG's Ballou joins Kelly's reform movement at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Maybe makeover isn’t a strong enough descriptor after all for the philosophical and staff shakeup Brian Kelly has orchestrated over the past two months.

The complementary and ensuing moves to the Sept. 25 purging of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder read more and more like a revolution of sorts.

How that translates onto the football field next fall for the eighth-year Irish head football coach remains to be seen, but the latest hiring — an assistant on the football strength and conditioning staff — underscores how deep a dive Kelly undertook in trying to exact meaningful change this offseason.

David Ballou is the newest face in the reform movement, having recently passed through Notre Dame’s elongated vetting sequence.

His addition may be under the radar but hardly insignificant. He’ll report to Matt Balis, essentially departed director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo’s replacement, though Balis carries a different title than Longo — director of football performance.

Ballou’s background, most recently at burgeoning national high school football powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., offers a peek into why the new department title isn’t just semantics.

“David Ballou is an impact guy. He’s a difference-maker,” IMG head football coach Kevin Wright told The Tribune.

“I hate to lose him — my family hates to lose him, but I’m really excited for him. And I think he’ll do wonders at Notre Dame. He and I both grew up in Indiana. We know Notre Dame’s a special place.

“It’s a place where you’re going to get some very talented guys, but you’re going to have guys you’re really going to have to develop, in my opinion, if you’re going to play at a high level. I think he’s the right guy for that job.”

IMG, as an institution, is ahead of the curve of many colleges, let alone high schools, when it comes to the new wave of sports science and all of its tentacles.

The football program — all of 4 years old, yet ranked No. 2 in the final 2016 USA Today Super 25 national high school rankings — employs a nutritionist, sports scientist and mental conditioning coach to complement what Ballou has been doing and what his successor will be charged with continuing.

“We’ve become a data-driven program in everything we do,” Wright said.

A higher standard

Notre Dame dipped its toe in the sports science end of things during the Longo regime, but perhaps not with the consistency and certainly not with the bottom-line results expected under Balis, Ballou and Co.

Balis, whose own background includes stretches working with current Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and renowned former Irish strength coach Mickey Marotti — also now at OSU, will get a chance to share his vision Monday, when ND makes him and the six new assistant football coaches available to the media.

As for Ballou, it’s the layers of experience and strengths that make him such an intriguing addition at ND and why Wright at several previous coaching stops tried so persistently to hire him away from Indiana state high school football heavyweight Avon during Ballou’s 15-year run at that school (2001-15).

“I think every time I did and failed, he got a pay bump at Avon,” Wright said with a chuckle.

Ballou’s foundation starts with his football background — playing and coaching. He’s a former fullback at Indiana University.

And while leading the strength program at Avon, he also served as a position coach and defensive coordinator. So he understands how the X’s and O’s and practice demands integrate with the strength/conditioning piece.

He’s got the academic chops — a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from IU in 2001, a master’s in Human Movement from A.T. Still University in 2009.

Among the areas where that showed up at IMG was in speed gains and injury prevention.

Wright said IMG had seven players who were recently laser-timed in the 40-yard dash at under 4.5 seconds. A year ago, not one of that group was even close to approaching 4.5-flat.

As far as injury prevention, Wright said 21 of the 22 players on the 2016 squad who started the season opener also started the season finale for the Ascenders.

“The only guy that didn’t was a guy who had been with us only for three or four weeks and tore his ACL,” Wright said, “and he hadn’t gone through our offseason program.”

More — more weight pushed around, more hours in the weight room, more hours on the practice field — isn’t always better in the new world of strength and conditioning. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all prescription either.

Different position groups have different demands in terms of work volume.

“David understands intensity levels and overload,” Wright said. “Then the big thing is understanding how you try and taper a guy, so physically he’s at his best and peak performance.

“He’ll take a 12-month calendar and lay it out by month and by week, so that the load level is right where it should be for a guy to be optimal at game time.”

And he does it in the context of a travel schedule that’s even more demanding than a lot of colleges. IMG logged more than 16,000 round-trip miles in a 13-game schedule played over 14 weeks in 2016. That’s roughly 6,000 miles more than what Notre Dame will cover in its 12-game schedule in the fall.

“Even when it comes to practicing smart, he’s involved in that too — how much we take people to the ground,” Wright said. “How much we thud. How much we tag off, all that.

“There’s a lot of preparation that we do in regard to keeping our kids healthy, and again it’s part of a total program of philosophies that everybody has to buy into, starting with the head coach.”

One of the first steps when a player enrolls at IMG is the strength and conditioning staff attempting to identify muscular deficiencies and imbalances.

“Then you take that information and you design programs so that kids are least likely to get injured,” Wright said.

“For example, when a kid comes in, the first thing we’ll look at is hamstring strength. Then we’ll look at quad strength. If there’s an imbalance there, it’ll tell you there’s a greater risk of injury, either through pulls or strains. It also tells you if there’s an opportunity for someone to get faster, quicker.

“When the hamstring and quad strength is equal, you’ve got a player who’s least likely to get injured and most likely to be his optimum when it comes to speed.”

Navigating a possible NCAA snag

Kelly and running backs coach Autry Denson, the latter ND’s ace recruiter in Florida, have seen the process and program evolve firsthand as ND has made IMG a regular stop in its recruiting.

It was a recruiting rule, a proposed one, that made Ballou’s addition to the staff less than a slam dunk, however.

It’s called the Individual Associated With a Prospect rule, and basketball already has it. Under the football proposal, an IAWP cannot be hired in a non-coaching position two years before or after a recruit’s anticipated enrollment.

The Irish currently have three IMG products on their roster — safety Spencer Perry and running back Tony Jones Jr., freshmen during the 2016 season, as well as early enrolled freshman offensive guard Robert Hainsey.

To abstain from recruiting IMG for even a year seems unpalatable, for any school. In the current recruiting cycle, the school produced five of the nation’s top 50 prospects per Rivals.com, six of the top 100 and nine of the top 250.

In the 2018 cycle, those numbers jump to six top 50, eight top 100 and 11 top 250.

But Notre Dame did its due diligence to make sure there wouldn’t be any gray area, since Ballou’s hiring clearly occurred before the rule got to a formal, final vote.

Ballou may soon get to reminisce with his former employer in person. Notre Dame and IMG are trying to work out the final details for the Irish to stage four of ND’s 15 spring practices at the Bradenton, Fla., facility in mid-March.

“I think the thing people don’t realize about us, and David’s role specifically, is that we hold camps for kids ages 8-19, 46 weeks a year,” Wright said. “And then we also do NFL Combine training for college players getting ready for the NFL Draft. And David was good with all of those things.

“When I went to IMG, he was really the first guy I tried to push hard for, just because I knew how good he was — not just from a programming standpoint but a kids’ standpoint, relationship standpoint.”

And that relationship-building skill helps Ballou be a master motivator, Wright said.

“That’s what separates guys,” he said. “A lot of guys they have programming ability, they have knowledge. But can you motivate? He’s exceptional, and not every kid is motivated the same way.

“There are certain kids that are intrinsically motivated and they don’t need as big a push, and then there are kids who have to be motivated a little bit differently and they need a bigger push. And that’s why we don’t judge our results by our top 15 or 20 guys. We judge our results by our whole 94-player team.”

The missing piece?

The motivational aspect was the part of the old strength-and-conditioning regime at ND that seemed the most responsible for coaxing the turnover of leadership.

Ballou was able to build a culture at IMG in a very short period of time, Wright said. But can Balis, Ballou and the rest of the staff rebuild ND’s quick and strong enough to make it matter in September?

“What I can tell you about David is he’s a no-nonsense guy,” Wright said, “but I think every single kid cares about him, and he cares about them. And that gives him the ability to motivate. He’s not a yeller and screamer. He’s like the old EF Hutton commercials: When he talks, people listen.

"What he was able to do in a very short manner was create respect that then rolled into relationships that then allowed him to motivate kids as needed. There’s no doubt in my mind he can do that at Notre Dame, and I can’t wait to see it happen.”

Former IMG Academy strength and conditioning coach David Ballou has joined the football performance staff at Notre Dame. (Photo provided by IMG Academy/CASEY BROOKE LAWSON)