It started as a pipe dream of an assistant coach.
As Oregon’s offenses, led by Scott Frost, blew past opposing defenses and put up video game-esque numbers, the future Nebraska head coach couldn’t help but wonder: What if the speed of Oregon’s offense was combined with the strength of the players Nebraska built in the Tom Osborne era?
“I always thought back then if we could use the Oregon speed approach with old-school Husker Power, we wouldn’t lose a game,” Frost said.
Frost’s hypothesis proved correct in his first head coaching job, where he led Central Florida to a 13-0 record in his second season. Now, his belief is being put to the test at a larger scale in a far more difficult environment.
After a 4-8 debut season at Nebraska, Frost is turning to Husker Power, Nebraska’s historic strength training program, to help his team close the gap between them and the elites of the Big Ten conference.
The Huskers were competitive in losses against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa, three of the Big Ten’s top programs. However, defensive lapses cost them in all three games.
In a 41-24 loss against Wisconsin, Nebraska put up 518 yards of offense but allowed 370 rushing yards and the Badgers to go seven of 12 on third and fourth down conversions.
At Ohio State, Nebraska led at halftime but fell behind in the second half. The Huskers had two opportunities to get the ball back and retake the lead in the fourth quarter but failed to stop the Buckeyes on both occasions.
In the season finale at Iowa, the Hawkeyes rushed for 266 yards on the Huskers. Nebraska rallied to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, and the game appeared to be heading to overtime. Instead, Iowa ran the ball on six of the next eight plays for 31 yards, and Nebraska allowed Iowa to convert on a fourth-and-8 to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired.
When Frost was introduced as Nebraska’s head coach almost two years ago, he made headlines and earned a round of applause from Husker fans when he said he hopes teams across the conference will have to adjust their schemes to counter Nebraska’s. Going into their second season, the Huskers are still trying to catch up to the rest of the conference.
An Easy Decision
When Frost was hired as head coach, one of the first moves he made was hiring Zach Duval as his team’s strength and conditioning coach.
Duval and Frost’s relationship dates back to their college days when Frost was Nebraska’s starting quarterback and Duval was a graduate assistant in the Husker Power program, which was led by founder Boyd Epley. As Frost tried to make it in the NFL as a player, Duval stayed at Nebraska as an assistant football strength coach until 2002.
Duval worked in the private sector for the following six years, founding the Xplosive Edge Performance Center and co-owning The Performance and Wellness Institute in Colorado.
In 2008, he returned to Nebraska in his former role after Bo Pelini was hired as Nebraska’s head coach. After one season, Duval was hired by Creighton to become its director of athletic performance. One year later, he left Creighton for Buffalo to hold the same position.
In his four-year tenure at Buffalo, he developed one of his most talented pupils, four-time Pro Bowler and 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack.
During the same offseason that Mack was selected fifth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, Duval left Buffalo for Wyoming, which had just hired former Nebraska assistant Craig Bohl. During his time in Wyoming, he was also certified as a Master Strength & Conditioning Coach by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. After two years in Wyoming, Frost added him to his staff at Central Florida.
When Frost left for Nebraska after two seasons, he took his entire coaching staff with him, including Duval. Back at his alma mater, Duval oversees the entire strength and conditioning program for the athletic department but works primarily with the football team.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve let the football coach select the strength trainer,” Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said. “This was a little different. We saw that Zach could fit the role that Boyd Epley relinquished when he retired. We saw that Zach was brought up under Boyd; he knows the concepts and some new things. It’s just a nice fit.”
“He’s elite at what he does,” Frost said about Duval. “I think he’s taken the Husker Power approach and made it more scientific, more current and more up to date. He does a great job planning out what our players are going to do and motivating them.”
A Painful Beginning
At the 2018 Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Frost was asked what his program’s strength and conditioning regimen will do differently than the previous staff. He quipped back that the team would actually lift weights now.
As it turns out, that wasn’t an exaggeration.
“They were worse than what you think,” Husker senior defensive end Khalil Davis said about Duval’s workouts. “It was eye-opening. We thought we were working hard, but then we went through his workout and realized we could do more.”
The first workout left two freshmen hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, a condition where muscle fibers die and are released into the bloodstream. After the incident, Frost said Duval had modified the initial workouts to reduce the length and intensity. Both players were able to recover in time for spring practice.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” senior linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “I had heard a lot about how great of a strength and conditioning coach he is, and for him to prove that for us on the first time is great. I’m just happy we have him, and it’s a great investment by the university.”
For Davis, the workouts became easier after the first month.
“His workouts pushed us to have our bodies allow that,” Davis said.
Barry had a different perspective on the progression of workouts.
“The thing is, coach always changes the stimulant,” Barry said. “He tries to change his workouts, and it always shocks us — that’s what makes the workout a workout. That’s what I love about him: He gives me more than I can handle, and I want that.”
Following the second year of winter conditioning, Frost reported to the media that the team gained an average of 100 pounds of lower body strength and 50 pounds of upper body strength. Those are the only numbers made public by the program. Frost said at Big Ten Media Days that he and Duval hope to publicize all workout numbers from the players in the near future, but they weren’t at a point worth sharing yet.
Frost and his assistants are not allowed to work with the players during that portion of the offseason, making Duval the de facto offseason leader of the team.
“He’s the voice of our staff more of the year than the coaches are,” Frost said. “Our players are around the strength coaches more than they’re around us. They do a great job of being on the same page as us and carrying out some of the same approaches and ideas and characteristics that our coaches want.”
Building Husker Power for the future
With the players nearing the levels of fitness that Frost and Duval desire, the program is beginning to focus more on the details and on looking to the future.
“I’m working on balance and being efficient in my movement,” Barry said. “I’m worrying about the little things like perfecting backpedaling. Whatever can get me that much better; I’ve got so much to prove this year.”
Not only does Duval help players get stronger on the field, but his ideas have helped in many other aspects of their lives as well.
“He has had a tremendous impact on [my health],” Davis said. “He has taken all of this to a different level with Dave Ellis, the nutritionist. They changed the whole eating area, and it’s healthier. They track our sleep now.”
Moving forward, there are plenty of improvements to be made for Duval’s program. The most pressing concern is the facilities. The current weight room can only fit 40 players at a time, meaning Duval has to run four separate shifts throughout the day to get the whole roster in for workouts.
With a larger weight room, Duval can shift his focus to having the Nebraska strength program stand out nationwide.
“People caught up with us and passed us by in some regards,” Moos said about the program. “We have the very best, and I can say that and emphasize it, in those roles right now. That’s our rightful place, and that’s what we want to get back to.”