published Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Tennessee Vols learning proper nutrition

KNOXVILLE -- Call it Jordan McRae's secret.

The Tennessee basketball guard admitted Wednesday night before his Rocky Top League game that he had too much body fat. Good luck finding it on the 6-foot-5, 174-pound junior's wiry frame, but he blamed the golden-arched fast-food joint that is just steps away from UT's campus.

Then Nicodemus Christopher was hired 30 days ago as the basketball Volunteers' strength coach.

"I was a big McDonald's fiend before he came here," McRae said with a smile. "I had a lot of fat, believe it or not. I'm trying to tone down on that."

Christopher joined UT from Purdue, coach Cuonzo Martin's alma mater, where he was a sports performance assistant. That was Christopher's second job working with college athletes; he spent a semester as a volunteer at Stanford and some time working with professional athletes in Texas.

One of Christopher's first emphases is improving the Vols' dieting habits.

"It's an adjustment," he said. "If you hang around, you'll see they're asking me, 'Coach, can I have this? Coach, can I have that?' I think one of the most important things when working with college athletes is you have to get them to buy in and believe in what you're doing and believe in what you want them to do.

"I feel like the guys have bought in 100 percent. They're 100 percent down. Myself, in conjunction with our sports nutritionists, they're making leaps and bounds on the nutritional side."

Weight goals are part of collegiate athletics programs everywhere in the summer, when strength coaches become very important figures. McRae is no different, and his goal of adding muscle isn't without purpose. A springy slasher who can score inside and out, he averaged 8.6 points per game last season, but the area in which to improve -- finishing with contact -- was easy to find.

"It was on me," he said. "You could see during the games: Sometimes I would drive and get pushed off and get unbalanced. I'm really trying to concentrate on that.

"[Christopher's] a great addition. When I want to find the right things to eat, I call him, and I'm eating a lot better than I have before. He's a real cool guy off the court, somebody you can talk to about anything."

The Vols are Christopher's team for now, though they'll soon spend time on the court with Martin and his staff since the NCAA just started allowing limited coach-player summer contact.

While their football counterparts are benefiting from having the same strength coach for the second consecutive year for the first time since 2008, the basketball Vols must adjust to a new face in workouts. Troy Wills had been UT's strength coach for more than nine years.

"He's a real good guy," center Kenny Hall said of Christopher. "He knows what he's doing in the weight room. We do a lot of good stuff as far as strengthening our core and strengthening our hips and a lot of stuff related to basketball to keep us right and keep us in shape.

"He's always staying on us about how we're eating and what we're eating. As far as me, he just wants me to eat, period."

Added Skylar McBee, UT's 3-point specialist: "He don't let you sit down. He's a young guy with a lot of energy. I think it relates to us."

Christopher earned his undergraduate degree at Baylor and completed his master's degree at Texas-Tyler in 2010. He worked in Dallas at the Michael Johnson Performance Center, where he trained players from the city's NHL and MLS franchises.

Christopher's notable clientele includes NFL stars Donald Driver, Darren McFadden and Bradie James, but there's a clear difference in working with college athletes.

"Working with pro guys, I enjoy that," Christopher said. "I feel like working with these collegiate athletes, I have such a huge opportunity to make an effect on them. I get to mold them. They continually develop and hopefully [become] pros by the end of their time here with us."

Christopher's relationship with Martin didn't begin until UT's second-year coach called, though the San Diego native admitted it was hard to work in the Boilermakers program without at least hearing of Martin, a former Purdue sharpshooter and assistant coach.

"The opportunity is huge," Christopher said. "The opportunity to work under Cuonzo Martin and the rest of his staff, you can't beat that. Just the way that he runs his staff is one of a kind. It's been beyond my expectations.

"Working with the fellows has been great. They give me 200 percent effort every day that we're working, and ... I demand perfection in everything that I do. Those guys understand that I have high expectations, and they're meeting those expectations as of now."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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