16 min Read

Q&A with Ivan Lewis

by Garry Paskwietz

WeAreSC sat down with USC strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis, who begins his third year in charge of Trojan program, to talk about what things are like under Clay Helton, what he has seen from the summer workouts and more.

WeAreSC “You have a new coach coming in this year with Clay Helton. A coach who has been here before but this is his first year as head man. Any changes in the way he does things, philosophies, etc.”

Ivan Lewis “We talked a lot about really changing the culture of what we’re doing, and that started with accountability to each other. We had the players take a week where they were running their own workouts, coming in on their own, getting with their position groups and just team bonding. That was the beginning of them working with each other and holding themselves accountable to each other. It wasn’t the coaches setting the workout, it was the players themselves deciding what they were going to do and then doing it.

“We wanted guys on the team to speak more, talk more, take more control. We want them to take ownership. Even with the warm-up drills that I run, I don’t have to always be the one talking. We want them to communicate more, listen to each other more. We want them to understand criticism, that if an older guy tells you something it’s not to be taken that he’s getting on you, it’s to make you better.”

WeAreSC “One of the priorities that Helton has stated is to improve the physicality in the trenches. It’s not like you haven’t been training to be physical in the past so how do you take what he said and apply it to your program?”

Ivan “I’m a firm believer that we can improve their mental toughness threshold so when we design our drills it’s about getting them to a place that they don’t think they can get through. We want them to feel that exhaustion and push through it. All of these guys are strong, everybody in college football is strong so there’s no magic to that, and I think when you’re talking physical football it’s about the way you practice. You practice physical so the game is easy. Go back to the Pete Carroll years, when we practiced physical and hard the practices were harder than the games. And then with the technique and fundamentals the coaches install, especially in the trenches, is going to be imperative to our physical play.”

WeAreSC “Talk about the importance of the older guys teaching younger guys about how things are done at USC”

Ivan “The freshmen are coming into our culture. Our culture. The culture we’re setting and establishing is new. The past is the past, this is our culture now. I’ve been here before in 2006 and seen how things were done right, and in recent years I’ve seen some different ways, not saying good or bad, just different. To me, it’s about getting back to the guys on the team establishing the culture and holding each other accountable, and I think the older guys have done a fantastic job doing that.”

WeAreSC “Fair to say, not to single out one or two guys, but Zach Banner has been one of them?”

Ivan “Yes. I’ve known Zach since we recruited him back at Washington. Zach has matured a lot. I’ve seen his transition and I really do believe when he talks that other guys listen right now because he’s put in the work. He’s as funny of a guy as they come but he’s also very passionate in the way he cares about his teammates, this team, his coaches. He’s done a really good job of helping dictate this culture. I love the way the whole o-line group has worked. Toa (Lobendahn) works hard, he comes to work every day and he’s getting real healthy. Those guards are all grinding. Even a guy like Chuma (Edoga), his body is starting to really develop.

“I think Max (Browne) is doing a good job, he and Sam (Darnold) are really pushing each other, competing hard. The guy who stands out to me on the offense is Justin Davis. He is coming to work like a true competitor and he’s on the verge of breaking into that dominator range. It’s a night and day difference in his mentality of how he’s attacking the day. When we checked his GPS monitoring after one of the first team runs, he had more than double the explosive movements of anyone on the team. That validates what I’m seeing with my eyes, that he is hitting “go” every time and attacking with a purpose. It’s very impressive. And JuJu (Smith-Schuster) has been amazing too. I love how aggressive he is.

“On the defense, even though Kenny Bigelow is injured he does a good job keeping the line guys in place, just always being there and talking with them. I’m extremely happy with Uchenna (Nwosu) and Porter (Gustin), they are going to be some powerful individuals. Porter is one of those guys who has just matured from last year, it’s so hard to come in and play as a freshman in the Pac-12 while your body is still developing. And then you’ve got Cameron Smith and he’s still killing it right now. He just gets it, so mature.

“With the DB’s, you’ve got someone like YK (Ykili Ross) who was a little quieter last year but he’s definitely improved what he’s doing, I’m excited to watch him. You’ve got Marvell Tell and Iman Marshall with a year of maturity, we’ve got Adoree’ Jackson back. And I’ll tell you what, Chris Hawkins is the man. He does a really good job of being the older guy and playing that role to keep guys accountable. It’s pretty cool because I’ve never been more pleased with the chemistry of guys on the team as I’m seeing right now.”

WeAreSC “When the freshmen arrive at the beginning of summer and you meet with them, what are the initial points you try to get across?”

Ivan “The first thing we let them know is that they are now joining our team. They aren’t in high school anymore, nobody cares about their Instagram or any of that crap, all of that is out the door. You made the choice to come here and join this team and it’s time to become a responsible adult. We make sure they get my phone number, the trainer’s phone number and the academic guys phone number. It’s all about communication and learning to talk to us. We’ve lost the art of communication with all this technology. Don’t text me, call me. And we want to make sure they know they don’t get to miss stuff. You don’t just get to miss class because you don’t feel well. Did you call the academic guy? Did you call the trainer? Did you go see the trainer? The next thing we talk about is our culture of how we operate as USC football players. From getting up early, to getting a good breakfast, going to class, going to tutors, to player run practices, then getting some sleep and doing it all over again. It’s a great chance for us to get them acclimated before training camp comes and it’s another step up, and then the next phase comes with the season and classes starting.”

WeAreSC “You have a unique situation this year with Adoree’, who spent spring and summer with the track team. What are the challenges to transition him from track training to football?”

Ivan “My immediate concern is that he hasn’t done any football training or workouts since the Holiday Bowl. He’s been track training, and they train well, but it’s different than football. I’m talking about change of direction, football movements, his weight. The game plan with him right now was to take a good week-and-a-half off once track was done to just decompress and rest. I need him to understand that he doesn’t have to be Superman from the get-go. We’ll get him lifting first to get that soreness out because he hasn’t lifted like we lift for a long time. We’ll do that for two weeks. We had him doing some on-field warm-ups the other day, a thing he could do a million times over, but you could tell it was taxing because he just hasn’t done it for a while. That shows how fast you can get out of football shape. So when you want to talk about preventing injuries, we’re preventing injuries right now with Adoree’ by progressing slow. By the end of this week we will start with some movement and cutting drills, and then we will work him into the conditioning drills. When practice comes, we’ll build him into that too. We’re not playing a game until September so he’s got plenty of time to adjust back to football, and we’ll monitor him throughout camp to be smart about it.”

WeAreSC “You mentioned the GPS monitoring earlier, tell us more about those tools and why they are so important.”

Ivan “The number one thing for us is the collection of data. I’ll give you an example with injuries, we categorized our guys for all the drills we did in the off-season, so if we have a player coming off a knee injury we can monitor how he moved, how he operated, from last year to this year, before the injury and after. It gives us more information to validate when he is ready to return to play. It’s going to be huge during the season to help us determine when someone might need a rest, or to look back and see how hard they went during a game. It’s all to help us train smarter. Now don’t get me wrong, we believe in training for football and training hard, but just to have that extra knowledge is good to help support the decisions we make. I think we saw last year that some of our guys got a little tired, maybe we could have done a better job, but with that knowledge now as we enter the second year of the program we can give coach Helton a more holistic overview of where the players are at so he can make informed decisions.”

WeAreSC “Let’s talk a couple guys and the progress they’ve made in the off-season. First one, Damien Mama.”

Ivan “Damien came in here at almost 400 pounds and he weighed in today at 324. He’s done a tremendous job of losing weight but maintaining strength. He’s been very dedicated, it’s not easy to lose that kind of weight in that amount of time and still be athletic, still be able to move well. I mean, he’s one of the most athletic big guys I’ve ever been around, ever. He’s flexible, he’s naturally strong. Anyone who has ever tried to lose that kind of weight knows it’s not easy so it’s a huge compliment to him.”

WeAreSC “How important has the nutrition element of the program become in recent years?”

Ivan “It’s huge. To have the resources to give these guys a training table, a good breakfast, is imperative. To have a full-time football nutritionist who can work with our strength coaches that know nutrition, it allows us to help the players make good choices. We’re constantly making a push to educate them about learning how to take care of their bodies. What to eat, when to eat, how much to eat. The normal kid coming out of high school has no idea about those things.”

WeAreSC “We talked about Damien, any others that have caught your eye?”

Ivan “I think that whole offensive line group, I really like the way their mentality has changed and I can’t wait to watch them play. I mentioned Justin Davis earlier, just the way he operates. I like to judge guys by work ethic. I look at the aggressive way the receiver group gets after it. Someone like Darreus Rogers has just gotten better and better each year. He knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he’s attacked his weaknesses, which is awesome. Isaac Whitney has done nothing but impress me ever since he’s been here. He just quietly does his work and gets after it, he’s made the most of his opportunity here as far as developing.

“Look at a guy like Malik Dorton. You want to talk about a guy who has made strides. He’s different than what he was two years ago because he’s worked to make the most of his opportunity and now he’s in the 280-285 pound range. JJ Watt was here the other day and he was talking about how you only get one shot at this, so when did it become cool to not work hard. Working hard is cool, making the most of your opportunity is cool.”

WeAreSC “One position group that has really stood out to me is tight end, those are three good ones this year.”

Ivan “The athleticism of all three is pretty impressive, and they’ve matured in size as well. Taylor (McNamara) looks different than he did last year. When he came in as a transfer he wasn’t necessarily the healthiest guy, there were some hamstring issues, but he did a good job playing. This year he’s so much more physically ready. Tyler Petite has just had that off-season to mature and he’s so professional about the way he works. Daniel (Imartorbhebhe) has put on some really good weight, he came in here last year at 219 and he just weighed in at 241. You don’t hear much from those guys but they come in and do their job, they’re blue-collar guys that their teammates can count on.”

WeAreSC “The person who brought you to USC, Chris Carlisle, is a favorite of Trojan fans and I know you had a chance to spend time with him up in Seattle recently.”

Ivan “Coach Carlisle has been my greatest mentor in this profession. When I was his assistant he would rip my ass, a few times, and it was almost a father-son kind of way. He taught me how to operate as a strength coach, how to ask the right questions, what to watch for, and how to challenge your program to get better. I still go up to see him twice a year, for OTA’s, and I think that’s the best professional development I get to sit down with him, review my program, spend time with him and Pete Carroll, they are the two best in the business if you ask me.”

WeAreSC “Finally, let’s talk about Kenechi Udeze, a guy who served on your staff at Washington and here at USC. Any fatherly pride with him in his new role?”

Ivan “That’s my guy. The great thing about Kenechi, going back to when I first hired him at Washington, is that he’s always been my go-to guy. I could always count on him and we could always shoot each other straight. There was always a relationship of trust. When I lost him at UW I not only lost a great friend but I lost a great coach. He really knows how to bond with the kids without trying to be their friend, he is their coach. And how do you get better than a guy who has been at the highest level, not just a dominator at football but to beat cancer, and to go about it the way he did? You never heard him complain about anything. It’s all about the present, the future, and what he’s doing right now. I know he is a young coach and this is his first job but I really believe his ceiling and upside as a coach is infinite.

“Kenechi is an example of a phrase I use a lot, “make it happen”. You have the choice when you wake up to say you’re going to have a great day. You don’t wake up and say I’m going to have an average day. If you want to have an average day, don’t even come to Kennedy Field. That’s our field, that’s where we list our banners, our national championships. Nobody cares about the rest of your day when it comes time to put in the work. If you don’t feel good, screw it, make it happen. When you’re lifting, are you lifting because you have to lift or are you lifting because you looked at the score against Stanford and you’re pissed? That kind of score should never happen at USC. Never, ever, ever. When I was here before we would walk on the field and the other team would be scared, absolutely scared. That’s where we need to get back to, and we will.”

Ivan Lewis and Leonard Williams
Ivan Lewis and Leonard Williams

Garry Paskwietz

A 1988 graduate of USC with a degree in Sports Information. Worked in sports marketing for LA Lakers and Miller Brewing Company. Began covering the Trojans in 1996 with the Trojan Football Fax. Founded WeAreSC in November 1998 with stints at Scout and ESPN. Emmy-winner while covering high school football at Fox Sports West.

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