The recruiting Super Bowl that is national signing day has come and gone, and on that front, eyes now turn to 2014 and the hosting of junior days. Spring football is still a month away for most major colleges; spring games are even further on the horizon. It is truly the offseason.
Quite honestly, this "offseason" period we are in right now is the most universally despised period among college football players. It is the time where your seniority, your status on the team and place on the depth chart matter not.
It is winter conditioning.
For those of you that have done it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. For those of you who have not, we'll take you on a crash course. Let's do it on the hop, because nothing happens slow when it comes to winter conditioning.
First up is the timing. Some schools, ones with remarkably nice coaches, go in the afternoon. Others, the ones with the sadistic staffs that inhabit the bulk of the college football world, go at the crack of dawn. They kick things off when it's dark out, people on campus are still raging with late nights in some places and the newspapers have not been delivered.
Those guys on your teams, the 17- to 22-year-olds who make up your roster, are up at that hour—getting up and getting ready to rock and roll before the rooster crows. Teammates are looking after teammates, making sure roommates are there on time or that the guy who stayed the night with his girlfriend gets up to make it in time.
Going early serves two purposes: discipline and control.
Discipline is another one of those twofold ideals. On one hand, they schedule it early to, hopefully, keep kids out of bars, away from parties and from chasing girls. That's the front end of discipline: a little prevention through scheduling. On the back end, they time it early in order to instill the ideas of promptness. Time is a big thing in football. There is a lot of "if you're just on time, you're late," and this schedule plays right into that.
In other words, they are pushing for these kids get to bed early, get their behinds up and then get to the facility early.
The next big element is the drills themselves. It sort of has a carnival atmosphere or the much-ballyhooed "county fair" feel. The station-to-station approach is one that most schools take, and for that 45 minutes to an hour of perpetual motion, the coaching and strength and conditioning staff put the players' bodies through hell.
You've got ladders, you've got hurdles, you've got chutes, you've got bars, you've got shuttles, you've got sleds and any other pain contraption or exercise the S&C staff can think up. Monster truck tires. Bungee cords. Sleds you pull. Sleds you push. Crawling. Jumping. There is running, shuffling, karaoke, hops on one leg, hops on two legs and backpedaling. There are two-man wheelbarrows, piggybacks, tugs of war and the like.
Oh, and there are mat drills.
This is something most folks are not privy to. Mat drills are the hell that your favorite college football players are pushing through to get better in the winter. For a more thorough explanation of the work done on the mat, I turn to myself, from just a year ago:
12 men in a group, four groups of three on the mat. Coach calls out "READY, READY" and the feet start chopping. On the "HIT" you're jumping onto the mat, standing up chopping your feet. He points left, you shuffle left. He points right, you shuffle right. He points down, you hit the ground and get up. He claps and thumbs up, you sprint past him to another coach who breaks you down and you jog back into the line.
That next group better jump on the mat as he thumbs you past or your group has to go back to do it all over again. As you are jogging down the edge back to the line, the group behind you is finishing and the third group is up. Then the fourth group is up and you're next.
Fourth group takes off and coach points to the ground, you're diving out onto your chest before getting into a bear crawl position, chopping your feet, butt low. He points left, you're shuffling left. He rolls right, you're doing a seat roll to the right. He points up, you're exploding into the air and then back down into the crawl position. He says get out of there and you hit your chest and get up sprinting to the second coach as the next group dives out to take your place.
Then you're back up again. Back to diving out. More seat rolls. Then he'll mix it up and get you doing monkey rolls. Please don't screw this up.
It looks like fun. It isn't. You're exhausted. You're disoriented. You're jumping and rolling. You're listening and looking for the go signal. There's a teammate flying over you and then one underneath you. Then you get the go signal to take off for the the coach.
That's mat drills. It happens so fast. There is no complaining. Hell, outside of picking up your teammates and making sure they aren't lagging, forcing a repeat, there isn't much talking at all.
There's no bending over. No grabbing shorts. That's weakness.
This is winter for your favorite college football player. This is what they're doing before they have class that morning. This is what they get up early for in February.
Which brings us to the last part of the equation: what players get out of all of this.
Obviously, they get a workout. It builds stamina, works fast-twitch muscles and improves reaction times. Players are improving their balance and working on explosion—all things that are a must in the world of competitive football. If individuals did this in a vacuum, they'd end up better conditioned as well as bigger, faster and stronger.
Yet players don't do them in a vacuum. They execute these drills as a team. With the exception of spring and fall practices, this is about the only thing players do as a team. Weightlifting is a group affair both in and out of season. Running is much of the same—groups based upon position, focus, class schedule and the like.
That's where winter conditioning is different.
It's not just about the physical, tangible results of getting stronger and better. While practices in spring are about installs and sorting out a depth chart, and fall practices are about putting together a game plan, winter is about truly seeing just what you've got as a team.
Physically, sure, you'll get to see if the players are capable of doing the drills, but mentally is where you'll really see them do work. Guys who most fans have never heard of become vocal in their groups. Captains are forced to live up to their roles as leaders on the team. Mental midgets shrink to the back of lines and have to be grabbed by teammates and pushed ahead. Freshmen get baptized by fire as their teammates dare them to be the reason they have to start over.
Ah yes, the start-over—the worst of the worst, especially if you're stationed on the mat drills when it happens.
For most of my life, I truly believed that the start-overs were a result of a teammate's bad performance. Thanks to Stephen White, I'm now questioning every time we were sent back to redo a station:
Arbitrary start-overs are, quite possibly, the worst. They show coaches how you handle frustration and channel your energy, but they certainly make teammates angry at the player who is blamed for the restart.
Winter conditioning is where you start building champions. It's where teams who missed out on a bowl game last year start pushing for their sixth win. Here is where new coaches get to truly look at their teams and find out who the real leaders are on their rosters. Early enrollees get a healthy dose of the reality of college very quickly. Guys expected to step up in place of leaders who have graduated or moved on get their first shot to prove their mettle.
There is no offseason; there is no time off. These kids are busting their behinds, and the transition from just weights into winter conditioning is just another of the necessary evils to play high-level football.
Hats off to all the guys out there getting after it. Stay safe.
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