Aaron Rodgers. Joe Horn. Ray Lewis. Andre Johnson. All these greats are connected to a man who has come onto the Southern Miss campus and changed the culture. Zac Woodfin can be classified as a journeyman with all the lessons he has learned over his many football stops.
Having won three games last season, the coaching staff at Southern Miss needed something to push them over the top. With an improvement from 2-10 to a bowl-eligible 6-6, Woodfin was widely known as being the reason for the quick turnaround of fortune and the vast improvement of the UAB Blazers’ coming of age.
Woodfin only spent one season with the Blazers before coming to USM after the UAB football team was disbanded. Woodfin was named the 2014 Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year by FootballScoop.com.
“I see this team, having the players and the coaches, to be special. It was a great opportunity (on choosing Southern Miss),” Woodfin said. “I knew it was going to be a great opportunity to influence the players and a lot of young men.”
Reaching a bowl game has been something that has evaded USM since the 2011 season, when Southern Miss defeated Nevada in the Hawaii Sheraton Bowl. Since then, Southern Miss has won a total of four games in three seasons.
“Our goal is to win a championship, nothing less,” he said. “Win a championship, go to a bowl game—that’s what we’re reaching for. We’ve got to work to make that happen.”
It’s fairly easy for Golden Eagle fans to get discouraged about the future. Never has the Southern Miss fan base seen such despair and negativity surrounding its beloved football team. The general hope is that Woodfin is the guy, after seeing former coach Ellis Johnson not win a game in his lone season as the Golden Eagle head coach. That is where Woodfin’s experience comes into play.
During Woodfin’s NFL career, he made stops for the New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and the Houston Texans as a linebacker in the league. Woodfin never started in a game, which only made him find other ways to stand out from the rest of the league.
“Strength and conditioning is why I achieved a lot of my goals,” Woodfin said. “I wasn’t a great athlete but I used the weight room, speed, work, nutrition (and) recovery. I used all those things to level the playing field.”
His football experience did not just stop in the NFL, as he was selected in the first round of the 2007 NFL Europe Draft by the Frankfurt Galaxy. Woodfin’s career was a successful and swift one. The Galaxy lost in World Bowl XV—and it was Woodfin’s only year in the league. After his stint in the European NFL, he moved on as a player to become a coach.
Some players have been hurt in the spring, rehabbing a malady of injuries. Whereas common practices around the college football world is that the players rest, Woodfin feels differently.
“We’re still going to set a culture of ‘we’re going to win,’” Woodfin said. “We’re going to work regardless if you’re on the sideline. You’re never going to just stand around. There’s always something to do and ways to get better.”
With the disbandment at UAB, several players and coaches needed a place to go. Former UAB kicker Nick Vogel signed with Southern Miss this spring after taking a redshirt for the Blazers. Coach Woodfin did not necessarily follow in Vogel’s footsteps, but felt like the players are what led him to Hattiesburg.
“My goal for now is where can I be used the most, not necessarily a destination,” he said. “It’s just about where can I be used the most and where do I have the most influence on athletes and other coaches and make the biggest impact. I just really wanted to listen to my heart and my heart said Southern Miss, for the players.”
Arriving at campus in January, Woodfin had a direct impact on the players and the team. He led most practices during the summer break, giving him plenty of time to influence the players’ bodies and diets.
“I think we’re bigger,” said defensive coordinator David Duggan. “(Woodfin) has just been a positive influence (on the team).”
During spring practices, you notice Woodfin jumping around, actually interacting with the players during drills. Woodfin can be seen as giving off an image that mediocrity will not dig the Golden Eagles out of the hole they have been put into the last couple of years.
“Hopefully through a culture change and a mindset shift, mediocrity is not acceptable. Doing everything with complete effort, from the smallest of tasks to practice and lifting. Hopefully we’ve shifted the culture to expect and work harder than ever before.” – Woodfin
Sometimes, bringing in a new coach can have a negative impact on the players on the team. With Woodfin, the players have come to accept him right out of the gate. The players seemed to have grown on Woodfin and they have changed the culture around the program also.
“They’re buying into the nutrition, they’re buying into the sleep, they’re buying into the hydration program,” Duggan said. “(Woodfin) has done a great job and has had a positive influence on them.”
Even though a newfound optimism has filled up the Southern Miss fan base unlike recent seasons, only one question remains.
What can Woodfin provide for the future of Southern Miss football? He has already transformed the bodies of several players and gave them the chance to succeed.
“Wil Freeman, who has added a lot of body weight, he has had a very good camp,” Duggan said. “Michael Smith as well—we decided to move him inside to defensive tackle.”
Perhaps with a stronger team the Eagles will return to their mantra, “Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime.”