For Georgia Tech strength coach A.J. Artis, building toughness part of the job

Georgia Tech strength-and-conditioning coach A.J. Artis was hired by coach Brent Key after two years at South Florida. (Georgia Tech Football)

Credit: Georgia Tech

Credit: Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech strength-and-conditioning coach A.J. Artis was hired by coach Brent Key after two years at South Florida. (Georgia Tech Football)

On the whiteboard in A.J. Artis’ office in the Georgia Tech weight room, a list of objectives for the summer workout program might set coach Brent Key’s heart aflutter.

“No weakness, not tough enough, sudden change, off script, tougher mentality” are the words on Artis’ board. They are reminders to Artis, Key’s head strength-and-conditioning coach, of the traits that he and his staff will try to instill in workouts leading to the start of preseason practice and the start of Key’s first season as full-time head coach – being resilient and unflinching when a game takes an unexpected turn, such as a turnover that sends the defense back on the field.

The obvious aims of a strength-and-conditioning program – bigger, stronger, faster, better-conditioned, more explosive – perhaps go without saying. In a short career in which he has rocketed up the ladder, the 29-year-old Artis has developed the expertise and knowledge to help Yellow Jackets players achieve those gains. But it’s in developing the toughness that Key clearly has prioritized where Artis and his staff will try to differentiate their labors.

“You can be the strongest team in the country and the most conditioned team in the country, but if you can’t be accountable – if you can’t not jump offsides on third-and-1, you can’t stay set on third-and-1 when we’re going on two – if you’re not accountable, you can’t be a good football team,” Artis said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Artis has brought an assortment of concepts to develop toughness and accountability within Tech players. One is what he calls the Warrior Stance. Even when fatigued in workouts, he doesn’t want players bent over or standing with their hands on their hips.

“Like a boxer,” he said. “You never see a boxer with his hands down or his hands on his hips in the middle of combat. Always hands up.”

Another – in conditioning runs when players sprint to a line and return, he and his staff demand that every player touch the line. They also must do so with the correct foot.

“If you touch the wrong line, touch with the wrong foot, you miss the line, then that rep doesn’t count for the whole entire team,” Artis said.

It’s a high standard, but it’s done with the aim of developing accountability and mental focus when the body is under stress while developing fitness.

“Right now, with the group coming in in the summer, I think the guys we have here, I’d say 90% of those guys are tough and really gritty,” Artis said. “Right now, that 90%, the majority will rub off now on the incoming guys, and that’s when you’ve got a tough culture, a tough mentality.”

Former Tech offensive lineman Ryan Johnson, who played at Tennessee when Artis was on the Volunteers’ strength staff, can attest. Artis was at Tennessee from 2018-20 as part of coach Jeremy Pruitt’s staff. At that time, Johnson said, the Volunteers were not a team to consistently touch the line and with the correct foot.

“And immediately (Artis) nipped that in the bud,” Johnson said. “If we didn’t do it right, everybody went back.”

It was the same way in the weight room.

“They would sit there and make sure you were doing your reps correctly,” Johnson said. “You were getting all your reps, you were doing them right. Every single one of them counted.”

Johnson recalled one workout when Byron Jerideau, then an assistant at Tennessee whom Artis has brought to Tech, was spotting a teammate doing pull-ups. He had one more left in the set. The player told him he couldn’t do it.

“And (Jerideau) said, ‘All right, just stay there until you can get it. I got you,’” Johnson said. “‘I guarantee you can get it.’ Eventually, he got the pull-up, but I always thought that was funny.”

Jerideau bears the title Associate Director of Football Strength and Performance/Accountability. Part of his job is keeping track of what Artis termed “accountability infractions,” not only in the weight room, but for failures such as missing appointments for the training room or tutors or skipping class. If a player accumulates enough demerits, he must meet with the leadership council – made up of players appointed by Key – to explain his actions.

“It all goes back to accountability,” Artis said. “You have to be accountable in everything that you do. That’s a huge piece in it.”

Key hired Artis from South Florida, where he coached for coach Jeff Scott, who was fired in November after a 4-26 record. Artis was recommended to Key by quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Chris Weinke, who had worked with Artis at Tennessee.

“He’s great,” said Florida International strength coach Noel Durfey, who had Artis on his staff when he was strength coach for Duke and coach David Cutcliffe. “He researched a lot of stuff. He loves to read. He’s passionate about learning. He’s a good coach, and he’s a great guy. It’s a great combination.”

Artis played football at Campbell, where he decided to pursue a career as a strength coach before his senior season. Artis arrived at Campbell weighing 185 pounds and left at 240, switching positions from wide receiver to tight end in the process.

“That’s when I wanted to know the science behind how did I get so big,” he said. “Sets and reps, why is 5x5 (a workout program, effective), why is it 8x8, why are we doing these different things?”

Graduating from Campbell in 2015 with a degree in exercise science, he earned jobs at Appalachian State (where he attained a master’s in exercise science), Duke and then Tennessee in 2018 as assistant director of football sports performance. After two years, he became the interim head strength coach when his boss Craig Fitzgerald accepted the head strength job with the New York Giants. The promotion happened to occur in March 2020 just as the pandemic was shutting down the world. (Artis also had just gotten married and had a honeymoon to Greece canceled, giving him a topper story for “Where were you when the pandemic started?” conversations.)

Sending players strength equipment and designing workouts that they could do at home, Artis was made the full-time head strength coach that June at the age of 26, a lofty position for someone so young. Durfey, his mentor from his time at Duke, said it was easy to peg Artis as a coach destined to run his own weight room.

“He’s a really good coach,” Durfey said. “He’s well thought of in the profession.”

Artis subscribes to an approach called ground-based training that focuses on developing players’ ability to apply force to the ground and transfer that power through the body. Speaking during spring practice, offensive lineman Jordan Williams said of Artis’ winter workouts that “that junk is crazy” and praised his methods.

“I’m going to have to shout-out coach A.J. because that really changed the mentality of the team,” Williams said. “Toughened everybody up, got everybody pushing past their limits when they’re dead tired. I’m going to have to give my props to him.”

Artis is the second Black man to be the head strength-and-conditioning coach for football at Tech. He follows Bill McCullough, who was hired by the late Pepper Rodgers in 1975. Artis appears to be one of two coaches of color leading football weight rooms in the ACC.

“I don’t take it lightly that I’m African-American and in a leadership position,” Artis said. “Hopefully I can progress and help more people become directors, but I don’t take it lightly. It’s really about opportunity.”

As Key builds a team that he envisions to play mistake-free, with toughness, discipline and an unrelenting style, it all sounds good. A skeptic would note that in his past two jobs, Artis was a part of staffs that underperformed and ultimately were replaced. One trusting in Key would point out that, given a vast budget for staff, Artis is the one that he picked out for a critical position. Johnson, having trained with Artis and been a lineman for Key when he was Tech’s offensive line coach, applauded the hire. He likened it to a successful tennis doubles pairing.

“To me, they have two different approaches of reaching the same goal, and so I think it was a great hire by Key,” he said.

As the summer begins, Artis wants to develop players who not only are strong and fit, but are willing to practice and play through pain and can hold their stance through a hard count designed to draw them offside.

“We want to be tougher to get through camp so we can get better at football, so we can have a great season,” he said. “You see it. And then, summertime, you’ll see it more.”

If all goes as planned, ideas on a whiteboard will be actualized on Saturdays in the fall.

“It’s about pushing and getting better every single day,” Artis said. “When we come in, I have eight hours in a week (by NCAA rule). I don’t want to waste a second of those eight hours.”