- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The workout itself is relatively simple, and Mike Vrabel isn’t opposed to sharing it with anybody driven enough, or perhaps crazy enough, to try it.
So in a high school science lab in Detroit, the Ohio State defensive line coach stands in front of a room full of campers to demonstrate how they can build their strength, improve their ability to fight off blockers and maybe get a vice-grip handshake just like that of a 14-year NFL veteran.
All they have to do to get started is swap out the dry-erase board Vrabel is chopping with his unprotected hands for a brick wall.
“We worked with a couple guys in New England that were big on martial arts, big with playing with violent hands,” Vrabel said. “We developed that idea that we’d go over there and just pound our hands against a brick wall and try to make them as strong as we possibly could.
“I told my guys, it’s the same reason Bruce Lee used to kick a tree.”
Vrabel was turning his hands into weapons of destruction back then, and while they’re every bit as powerful now as they were during his playing days, they’ve since become tools of construction heading into his third season on the sidelines as an assistant coach at Ohio State.
He’s not afraid to use them with his players, either, and his hands-on approach combined with the rest of a body recently removed from a long, productive career in the NFL has clearly made him a valuable asset for the Buckeyes.
Need some fine-tuning with technique? Vrabel is more than willing to jump into position and provide an up-close example of how to get it done.
Proof that he knows what he’s talking about? Film is readily available of his record-setting stint with the Buckeyes or his three Super Bowl runs with the New England Patriots. It's a career that at least one of his pupils has admitted to studying since Vrabel returned to campus.
And with his track record and an aggressive approach that sometimes makes it look like he’s the one preparing to play a game on the weekend, the transition to coaching has apparently been every bit as easy as it was quick when he retired in 2011 and instantly earned a job offer at his alma mater.
“It’s been everything that I thought it would be, and probably more,” said Vrabel, 37. “I can’t do it anymore [physically]. In my mind I think I can, but I know my body can’t. So I try to give them everything that I’m thinking in my head to help them go out there.
“I would still be playing if I could. That’s what I tell them all the time. But now I think you just try to take in the different players that you’ve played with or worked with over the course of a 14-year career, then try to say, ‘This might work for you. So-and-so did it like this and it worked well for him.’ You give a little testimonial to them, and sometimes that works.”
That advice extends far beyond the finer points of unleashing karate against a wall, and Vrabel has no shortage of experience to lean on as he continues settling in to life as a coach.
He’s obviously loaded with tricks of the trade on the field, but he also has diet tips. He certainly has a deep catalog of schemes and playbooks, but he’s also learned how to motivate under championship coaches such as Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick.
And while Vrabel admitted that his first season back with the Buckeyes was operated “by the seat of my pants,” it hasn't taken him long to get a handle on the far-ranging responsibilities away from the practice field. He knows how to win over his room and get the results a team with national-title aspirations requires.
“He emphasized a lot of things, and I started to watch a lot of tape on him because I feel like we’re kind of similar players,” former OSU defensive end John Simon said. “What worked for him ended up working for me on the field a little bit, and I tried to incorporate that into my game.
“I don’t think playing in the league for 14 years hurts him. He’s a very prideful guy, and he has that personality that you just want to follow him when he starts talking. Then, with his track record of NFL success and college success on top of it, it makes him a terrific coach.”
And while shaking his hand or watching him move around during practice can sometimes make it seem like he should still be in pads, Vrabel makes it quite clear he’s content with a teaching role.
He’s still going to mix it up with his hands when needed, but brick walls are probably safe around Vrabel these days.
“It’s just trying to be creative,” he said. “It’s trying to be innovative enough that you can be ahead of the curve, doing things other people aren’t doing and not doing the same things over and over and over.
“Any defensive lineman that didn’t play with his hands wasn’t as good as he could be.”
That same approach apparently applies to coaching them, too.