Football is a game of inches — and pounds.
Imagine the moment when the LSU offense takes the field against the Alabama defense Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers’ 6-foot-5 quarterback will take the snap from his 6-foot-4 center. He’ll place the ball in the prodigious hands of his 230-pound running back, who will look for holes behind an offensive line that boasts a collective 1,582 pounds of muscle, bone and sinew.
He will run into the teeth of a Crimson Tide defensive line that averages nearly 300 pounds apiece, anchored by 320-pound leviathan Jesse Williams.
College football is colossal, both in popularity and in players’ stature. And if the trend keeps up, it will get bigger.
According to a database compiled by The Daily Reveille, the average LSU player is more than 40 pounds heavier and nearly two inches taller now than he was in the Tigers’ first national championship season in 1958.
This season’s team averages among the physically largest in school history. Including squad players who will never see a down in an LSU uniform, the average 2012 Tiger checks in at just under 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds. LSU starters, including specialists, average nearly 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds.
Long-time Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney remembers a different age. When he started covering the team in the 1950s, players more closely resembled mortals rather than today’s titans.
“Guys that were 190 [pounds] used to stand out at LSU,” Finney said. “You had guys on the offensive line who were maybe 170 pounds. Today, you can’t have offensive linemen in the low 200s. They’ve got to be close to 300.”
In actuality, they’d have to exceed the 300 mark. Of the 18 offensive linemen on the 2012 roster, only three weigh less than 300 pounds, and those players haven’t combined to play a single down this season.
Venerated LSU running back Billy Cannon would’ve loved nothing more than to run behind the big boys.
But Cannon was an exception to the rule in his day. During his Heisman Trophy-winning 1959 season, he was the seventh-largest player on the team, checking in at a listed 208 pounds.
“If I had 330-pounders [on my team], I might still be playing,” Cannon mused. “I might not have wore my body completely out.”
Though Cannon’s impressive physical attributes stood out in his day, they are the status quo in today’s game.
“You can just see how much bigger guys are today than they used to be,” Finney said. “It’s a sign of the times right now.”
It may be a sign of the times, or it may be a natural cycle in maturation of the human species.
According to data compiled by the National Health Examination in 2002, the average American male between the ages of 20 and 29 has grown from 68.9 inches in 1960 to 69.6 inches in 2002.
The most drastic increase came in weight. The same average American male weighed 163.9 pounds in 1960. By 2002, the average weight had ballooned to 183.4 pounds, a nearly 12 percent increase in 42 years.
The LSU football team paralleled and exceeded that growth. While players grew a little more than three quarters of an inch on average in that time frame, the players’ weight increased by more than 19 percent, from a 195.5 pound average in 1960 to nearly 233 pounds in 2002.
Although LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt has built a career on training people to become bigger and stronger, he noted that people are just larger than they used to be, and he sees the trend in his own family.
When Moffitt played high school football in the 1980s, he and his brother were two of three players on the team to exceed 200 pounds.
“My son and my brother’s son are both bigger than what we were in high school,” Moffitt said. “Back home, where we played football, their offensive line averages almost 260 pounds.”
Moffitt’s nephew is 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds. His son is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. Both are high school football players.
Strength training explosion and a tailored diet
Moffitt attributes the pervasiveness of those in his profession as partly responsible for the continued physical development of football players.
Strength training is considered a must-have in today’s world. When Moffitt first started as a strength coach, he couldn’t find a job in his home state of Tennessee.
“They were afraid that strength training would make you muscle bound,” Moffitt said, which was the same concern coaches had about strength training in Cannon’s era.
Moffitt traveled to New Orleans in 1987 to accept a job at John Curtis High School at a time when he said there were “maybe only one or two schools in the state that had a full-time strength coach.”
Currently, Moffitt estimates there are five full-time coaches in Baton Rouge alone.
“Now there are actual staffs, five, 10 or 12 people that are doing what one man used to do,” Moffitt said.
A full-time nutritionist, Jamie Mascari, works as part of Moffitt’s staff. She tailors meals to fit athletes’ training schedules. It’s a science that produces the biggest, fastest and strongest players to date.
“[Nutrition is] something that we’re looking at regularly,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “[Mascari is] doing a great job in terms of pointing our guys in the right direction. ... That guy that would have graduated at 235 pounds now graduates at 263 pounds, and he’s chiseled in steel and it all looks right.”
Does size matter?
Sophomore offensive lineman La’el Collins towered over members of the local media Tuesday as they peppered him with questions about Saturday’s matchup against Alabama.
Sporting a mammoth 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame, Collins maintained that while his imposing size is obviously needed to compete in the hyper-competitive Southeastern Conference, it is not everything.
To quote a Miles favorite, it all boils down to “the want.”
“It’s more heart, it’s more will, it’s more being physically in shape to do the things that we are called on to do as offensive linemen,” Collins said.
Sophomore defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, who cut about six pounds from his 310-pound physique in his freshman season, agreed with Collins.
“I learned this offseason that size isn’t always important, it’s about the heart,” Johnson said. “I played too big last year. … I thought I had to be big to play big. I lost a step in my game.”
Size is a necessity in today’s game, but not a precursor to success. A player must be big enough to keep pace, but it is just one of many ingredients required.
“Football is a game of pushing,” Moffitt said. “And the bigger you are, the more force you generate.”