BOULDER - In four weeks, Malcolm Blacken will have some preliminary answers for Jon Embree. He won't be able to predict Embree's starting quarterback, how Embree's first Colorado football team will fare in its first season in the Pac-12 Conference, whether late November will find the Buffaloes bowl eligible . . .
Embree isn't asking the impossible; he doesn't expect his new strength and conditioning coach to be a world-class soothsayer or miracle worker - although a miracle or two in the weight room would be appreciated. Embree wants bottom-line, transferrable results, and of course he believes that Malcolm Blacken is the guy to deliver them.
But it will take time, at least four weeks for Blacken's initial and introductory program to register with the Buffs and provide enough information for Blacken to scrutinize each player.
"My biggest goal over the next four weeks is to figure out what kind of team we have . . . what type of athlete is at CU: functional strength guys, weight room strength guys, do we have a track team? I don't know yet," Blacken said in his office the other day.
But this he does know (with the insight courtesy of Embree): "We've got some work ahead of us."
After four weeks, Blacken, who brings a strong college and NFL background to CU, will give Embree a written evaluation of every returning player. "I'll know who's working, who's not and what it means to them. Football means different things to different people," Blacken said. "I can get a pretty good feel - I don't have it yet - but I will know after four weeks what it means to them."
Blacken, 45, is an accomplished painter who "recharges my batteries" by spending time before the canvas. His work has been shown at several private galleries, and through an NFL artists program called "Smocks and Jocks," some of his work show was exhibited at the last two Super Bowls. Money from pieces that sold was donated to the NFLPA retirement fund for older NFL players. He passed on an opportunity to attend Super Bowl XLV because of his new job on Embree's staff.
Blacken isn't taking a blow-it-up-and-start-over approach here, although what he's prescribing for CU's football team and its other sports will be different from the direction taken by the previous regime. He promises the difference will be noticed by the student-athletes.
"Change is good sometimes, because the body responds to it in positive ways," said Blacken, who is married (Marcy) and has a pair of elementary school-aged kids (daughter Maya, son Bo). "What we're going to introduce to the CU athletes is a functional strength program, where I can do things in the weight room or the bubble - not just in football, but for all athletes here - can transfer to their field of play. That's my biggest thing.
"Coach Embree knows I'm not going to make a better football player in the weight room, but I'm going to give him a better athlete to play the sport . . . the position coach is going to make the running back better. I'm going to give him a strong athlete to play that position. That's my goal . . . if we can hit the ground running, not miss a beat training in season and out of season and maintain a certain fitness level year round, then at some point the benefits are going to show themselves.
"The athletes here - their response has been positive, they want change, they need change and it's welcomed. Not from the standpoint that the past strength coach didn't do a good job; that wasn't the case at all. I know 'Pit' (former coordinator Jeff Pitman) did a very good job. It's just sometimes, change is good. And the body likes a routine."
Blacken is big, huge in fact, on starting with core strength. All of his workouts will begin with 7 to 10 minutes of back stability and abdominal work to reaffirm to the Buffs that "all your power is in your core . . . every athlete at CU will know at the end of this four-week period that engaging your core in exercise is huge. And we'll do it year-round."
Blacken and his staff (assistants Moses Cabrera, Josh Shuler, Craig Downing, and director of basketball strength and conditioning James Hardy are being retained) also will emphasize lifts that can be used year-round - at least variations of those lifts.
"We're not going to do lifts in the off-season that can't be done during the season, when players need strength the most," Blacken said. "My program now is a variation of what we'll do in the fall."
In football, he will have four lifting groups a day, with players working together by position. Offensive linemen and defensive linemen will be in the same groups during morning lifts - depending on class schedules - and skill position players lifting together.
"I want them to compete," Blacken said. "I want the O-line to see what the D-line is doing and vice versa. I want everybody to feel like they have to measure up. The same O-line that's going to be opening holes, the same D-line that's going to be closing them . . . they need to know, 'I need to pick it up in here.'
"I don't like it when DBs are working out with offensive linemen. Team camaraderie is good, and we can do that (at certain times). But in lifting, I like the groups that go against each other to work together. It's competition, and that's what everyone thrives on."
Blacken said "most" of his program for football strength and conditioning will be new to the Buffs: "They've done a lot of power movements in the past, and that's OK. I have some of that in my program, of course. You have to build power from the ground, it's very important.
"But along with that, what I would do is pre-exhaust a muscle, then ask it to work. Do a squat, pre-exhaust the (quadriceps), then superset a leg extension. We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable - the body has to do that to play the sports we play. Football can be very uncomfortable in the fourth quarter. We have to, as a group, play it like it was the first quarter."
He's also big on random changes of pace, such altering the rest time - he prefers 45 seconds - during "half-gassers" to simulate changes of possession during a game.
"You might not get your 45 seconds (of rest)," he said. "You know it's coming . . . if we do 10 half-gassers, there are going to be two changes of possessions, but you'll never know when they're coming. In that player's mind, he's always ready to go. He knows I may get my 45 seconds of rest, I may not. That's the beauty of it, because that's what football is . . . expect it and be comfortable with it. It's that 'getting comfortable being uncomfortable' phase we talked about. That will show itself.
"I'm pretty sure at some point next season we'll throw an interception. I don't want to, but I'm pretty sure we will. The defense has to get back out there. My guys will train that way - functional strength, functional conditioning."
Blacken will use a "limited range of motion bench press" that emphasizes moving past a player's "stick point." Resistance training (the resistance sometimes provided by thick rubber bands), box step ups, running hills and in the stadium with "double resistance" (carrying extra weight) and practicing over-striding will be in Blacken's regimen.
"You can't run fast unless you practice running fast," he said. "You have to practice over-striding, running against resistance . . . there are certain things you have to do to run fast. But very seldom in football will a hole open for a running back and he's going to run straight down the field for an 80-yard score. There's going to be some lateral movement, some broken tackles, some things that I have to mimic in the weight room that we can transfer to football."
Shortly after his hiring, Embree said he wanted his teams to exhibit better flexibility and balance that would translate into more efficient "football moves." Blacken obviously has heard that, and will emphasize it. He also promises safety first, with no student-athlete put at risk through "unsafe movements . . . everything we do will be to make a better athlete, from flexibility to nutrition to strength and conditioning - the whole spectrum. We're doing things for a purpose."
From a 15-year NFL tenure (Detroit, Washington) and another handful of seasons working at the college level (South Carolina, George Mason, Virginia), Blacken learned big differences between professional and amateur athletes. Among the most pronounced, "My kids (at CU) are 18-22 years old; I'm coming from the NFL where I had the 22- to 38-year-olds," he said. "Those guys have a lot more wear and tear, but they know how to take care of their bodies. Their bodies are something different to them at that age; they're the CEOs of a business, and their business is their bodies.
"At this level, they don't know how to take care of their bodies, so we have to teach them . . . put them on programs that show them how. We only have a certain number of hours with them; the student-athlete has a lot of things going on and might not always be thinking what's best for my core today. That's my job."
When he toured the Dal Ward Athletics Center weight room with CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn, Blacken was asked by Bohn if the present equipment was adequate and if the room needed to be changed. As for the equipment, Blacken answered in the affirmative, joking later, "I can make do. I'm an old weight coach: You give me two cinder blocks and a broomstick and I'll still get a good workout." As for the room itself, he said he "eventually might move some things around, just for the flow of things."
On football Saturdays, don't expect Blacken to be among the first coaches on the sideline before kickoff. His game-day role won't vary from what he does the other six days.
"I've always been a motivator; I've always been the guy, with all due respect to the head coach, left in the locker room when the O-line and D-line are coming out last to warm up," he said. "I'm in there with those guys, in there with the big guys. That's where we, as we say in our profession, get our minds right.
"We look at each other in the eye and go, 'All right, this is what we do. This is why we show up, and I asked you to lift that 295 pounds over your head, or whatever. Now, I need to see if you can transfer it, see if you can transfer that power from the ground, through your body into the other guy and move him in a direction he needs to go in order for us to be successful.'
"I will be wherever Coach Embree needs me to be. I'll hold the sticks if he wants me to."
That's probably one thing that won't be asked of him. But in getting the Buffs game-ready, yes, he will stay busy.