McDonald gets OSU football team fit for fall
CORVALLIS — The most important coach with Oregon State football for a five-week period each summer isn't head coach Jonathan Smith, or defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar, or offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren.
It's Mike McDonald, the Beavers' strength and conditioning coach.
From June 24 to July 26 — when the on-field football coaches are off limits to the players via NCAA rules — McDonald will have sent 119 OSU players through a series of workouts designed to increase strength, speed and flexibility.
"It's the most important position in the summer program, and Mike does an awesome job," said Smith, who brought McDonald with him from Washington when he was hired as head coach of the Beavers in winter 2018.
McDonald is a physical specimen himself, a 6-2, 245-pound former defensive end at Purdue who, at 34, looks like he could make a grizzly bear cry "uncle." He grew up in Gatesville, Texas, a town of 15,000 two hours south of Dallas. McDonald was raised mostly by his grandmother, Virginia McDonald, a nurse at the local prison. His mother, Marilyn McDonald, worked as a guard at the prison.
"There was not a whole lot to do in Gatesville," McDonald said, sitting for an interview in his office at the P. Wayne Valley Sports Performance Center adjacent to the Valley Football Center. "The prison, the military and construction are the main three professions in town.
"There was nothing to do but work out and play football. In Texas, football is life. You see it in the movies — that's it. It's all about football. Growing up, I was big into training and body building, trying to get bigger and stronger and faster."
After graduation from Purdue in 2008, McDonald served as a strength/conditioning intern for a season apiece at his alma mater and at Washington State. He spent five years as assistant strength and conditioning coach at Boise State, the latter two years when Smith came on as the Broncos' quarterbacks coach. McDonald moved with head coach Chris Petersen and Smith to Washington in 2014, with Smith getting an upgrade to offensive coordinator. When Smith got the OSU job, he brought McDonald along to Corvallis with a promotion.
"It was a big compliment, that (Smith) holds me in high regard," McDonald said. "That was a big boost for my confidence, that he believed in me and what we were doing at Boise and Washington and wanted to try to continue that success at Oregon State."
Despite working six years together, Smith and McDonald didn't know each other well, primarily because both are low-key personalities.
"We didn't talk a whole lot (at Boise State or Washington)," said McDonald, who got his undergrad degree in sociology at Purdue and his master's in kinesiology at Boise State. "Jonathan is a laid-back kind of guy, and I am as well.
"My relationship is pretty good with Jonathan. It's still growing. We're learning stuff about each other and how one another operates. We're trying to build this thing to where we both want to see it."
McDonald's biggest influences have been the strength and conditioning coaches he has worked with — Jim Lathrop at Purdue, David Lang at Washington State, and Tim Socha at Boise State and Washington.
"I've taken pieces from each of them," McDonald said. "You take things from the people you've learned from and admire, and then you develop your own philosophy."
Oregon State's football players work out under the watch of McDonald and his staff — two full-time assistants, two interns — with single sessions four days a week during the summer period. Two days are devoted to the strength and conditioning component. Two days are used to focus on drills to develop speed and footwork.
McDonald's philosophy focuses in the strength department on "Olympic movements," exercises such as hang cleans, jerks, snatches and power cleans.
"Those are the things that help you utilize your 'triple extension,' " McDonald said. "Any time you do anything explosive, whether it's jumping up or sprinting, you're in triple extension. That involves your ankle, your knee and your hip being extended at the same time. When you jump and explode, that helps to develop that explosive power."
McDonald also emphasizes "power movements," with lifts such as the front and back squats and the bench press, to help develop players' bodies to get stronger and bigger.
"We also work on our accessory movements," he said. "We're big on pulling, inverted rolls, pull-ups, chin-ups. We work on full range of motion, even with our big guys. We have some linemen who can do six or seven chin-ups in a row. That's impressive for guys carrying close to 300 pounds or more."
Mondays and Thursdays are devoted to improving the speed component.
"Mondays are our the linear day, working on acceleration to top speed," McDonald said. "Thursdays are the change-of-direction day, working on acceleration and deceleration. Things like accelerating out of a cut into a different movement path, or just a different direction in general."
OSU's players lift weights four days a week. They'll lift after the speed workouts on Monday and Thursday and before strength and conditioning drills on Tuesday and Friday.
Workout groups are broken down in various ways. With the speed work, the skill players (quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs) and "big-skill" players (tight ends, running backs and linebackers) are paired together beginning at 6:15 a.m.
"When they're out the door, our linemen come in to go through it," McDonald said. "On Tuesday and Friday, we'll split them up by offense and defense."
About 45 players have attended a voluntary yoga class on Wednesdays for flexibility. There also is a volunteer session for a few players who need to lose weight. "We do some cardio and some interval training with them," McDonald said.
And there are player-run practices (PRPs) twice a week, with the entire squad present and a player from each position group taking the leadership reins.
"They work on individual stuff, and they also come together and do some team stuff," McDonald said. "The O-linemen work on their kick steps, punches, hand timing, hand placement in drive blocks. The D-linemen work on hand movements, pass rush moves, that first step, gap assignments."
On Thursdays, the offense squares off against the defense in seven-on-seven passing drills.
McDonald's staff uses a functional movement screen (FMS), a pre-participation screening tool designed to identify injury risk and help chart progress in strength, conditioning and speed with tests such as a deep squat, hurdle step and in-line lunge.
"That gauges how they move with their body waves," McDonald said. "If (a player) has one hip flexor tighter than the other, we can see that. If there are problems with ankle mobility or shoulder stability, we try to put corrective exercises in to correct imbalances."
OSU's strength-and-conditioning staff retests each player every year, keeping a grading sheet on file.
"They each have a personal folder with their numbers and lifts," McDonald said. "We have percentages we're trying to hit each week."
McDonald doesn't provide personal numbers on the players, but said the difference between the first and second and years of Smith's program are striking.
"It's a process, and the kids have come a long way," he said. "It's pretty cool to see the progress they've made from this time a year ago in a couple of different ways.
"The strength numbers are better. They've learned what we expect as far as technique with Olympic lifts and the front squats. The players are stronger. They're smoother with the way they move out on the field and change directions, the way they operate during conditioning. They're getting better, and they're in a lot better shape. They know what to expect mentally and they know how to attack it better."
The Beavers went into spring football with far fewer injuries than they did the previous season, when the players were coming off the final year of the Gary Andersen/Cory Hall regime.
"I don't like the word 'prevention,' " McDonald said. "We can't prevent everything. These guys are getting bigger, stronger and faster, and when they run at full speed, injuries are going to happen. That's part of the game.
"But we try to do our due diligence as far as training them to be fundamentally sound and putting them in good positions on the field to help reduce those injury numbers. We use the term 'reduction.' That's a huge part of our job. We take it to heart when guys get injured. We're thinking about what we can do to make them more resilient to those types of injuries."
During the season, McDonald and head trainer Steve Gaul sit in on the football coaches' daily meetings and provide updates on injuries or other issues with players. McDonald believes the work the strength and conditioning staff does with the players "impacts a lot" the team's performance on the field.
"We're trying to get these guys to work together as a group and to leave the individual out of it," he said. "We're trying to create those situations with our conditioning and speed work and holding each other accountable. We're trying to get these guys both mentally and physically ready to go out there and compete on Saturdays."
During his pre-summer meeting with each player every May, Smith asks for opinions on every aspect of the program.
"One of the resounding comments is they love what's going on over there (with the strength and conditioning staff)," the OSU coach said. "Bodies are changing. The guys feel stronger. They're more in shape. They're gaining or losing weight, whichever way they need to go. We're really happy with that.
"Mike knows what he's doing. He's an expert in the field. He connects to the kids, but he's also always pushing them. That's the exact recipe. You want to push the kids, but they also need to like you and trust you. He has that — and it's not just him, but his whole staff."
McDonald has earned the respect of senior linebacker Andrzej Hughes-Murray.
"'Coach Mac' has helped me a lot," Hughes-Murray said. "My body is more explosive. My speed has gone up. My weight has gone up as well, but I've lost body fat.
"He keeps it interesting. I find the workouts to be fun. They're difficult, no doubt, but I like pushing my body, seeing what it can do, doing movements that I've never experienced before. That's what I love about it. And I see the results."
Junior receiver Isaiah Hodgins says McDonald's personal attention has been important.
"He does a good job of corrective stuff on me, helping me loosen up my hips and different joints and making me more athletic, not just strong," Hodgins said. "We're doing things to help us on the field, and making sure we're taking care of our bodies at all times. He does a good job with recovery and diet instruction and investing in us as players."
Both players say they have found McDonald motivational.
"He's quiet, but he's someone who is going to push you to be the best you can be," Hughes-Murray said. "He knows it's his job to make us uncomfortable. That way, we can get results."
"He's a really good dude," Hodgins said. "He holds people accountable. That's what I'm used to with my father (former NFL player James Hodgins). I like how he handles all of that."
McDonald is excited about a $3.5-million upgrade to the Sports Performance Center, which begins when summer training is completed.
"It will help us a ton with scheduling (OSU's various athletic programs), since we all train in the same room," he said.
McDonald and wife Telia — a special-education math teacher at Linus Pauling Middle School — live near the Corvallis Country Club.
"I'm six minutes from home to work," McDonald said. "I love Corvallis. It's a quiet, small town — right up my alley. It's right in my comfort zone. I love the greenery in the area."
On a recent trip to Texas, McDonald's uncle took him on a guided fishing tour.
"We caught about 30 catfish," he said. "We haven't done anything outdoorsy up here yet, but we really need to get to the Oregon Coast."
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