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It's almost beach time for the Cincinnati Bearcats.
No, there's no relaxing summer vacation planned for the defending Big East champs. The time between spring practice and fall camp is reserved for conditioning work, and that's where Paul Longo takes over.
Every year, the Bearcats' strength coach sets up an 80-yard long, 10-foot wide sand pit inside of Nippert Stadium for players to run sprints through. It saves some pounding on the knees, but of course sand is harder to run on than turf. He dubs his creation "Longo Beach."
"I'm sure our guys would tell you that it's no day at the beach," Longo says with a laugh.
Longo also constructs a 30-yard hill inside Nippert during the summer for sprint work. Peek inside some of the Cincinnati summer workouts, and you might think you're watching a taping of the "World's Strongest Man" competition. Longo has been known to ask his guys to lift unusual items like tires and perform what's called a Farmer's Walk, where you walk while carrying a heavy object in each hand.
"Our linemen will carry up to 200 pounds in each hand for 100 yards," Longo said. "Don't you think that's a better test of strength than a bench press?"
Football players don't just pound the iron in sweaty gyms anymore. Strength and conditioning coaches continue to seek new and improved ways of building muscles and skills that translate onto actual gameday activities instead of creating a team full of power lifters. Like Longo -- who's in his sixth year working for Brian Kelly and his 23rd year overall as a strength coach -- many try to get creative with their methods.
Most of Cincinnati's weight work is done with chains, not traditional weights. Bearcats players are asked to do reverse running -- not backpedaling, but running backward -- as a change of pace. Longo has some other techniques he'd prefer not to share with the competition.
"It's 50 percent science and 50 percent art," said Longo, who spent 11 seasons under Hayden Fry at Iowa. "Twenty-five years ago, it was about how much can you lift and powerlifting-type things. That's maybe 20 percent of our entire program now. It used to be the meat and potatoes, and now it's not even close."
Whatever Longo is doing, it seems to be working. The Bearcats have won 22 games in the past two years and made the 2008 Orange Bowl with players who were mostly unheralded on the recruiting trail. Six players were drafted by the NFL last month, including defensive end Connor Barwin, who was one of the top performers at the NFL combine in several categories. He parlayed that performance into becoming a second-rounder.
Barwin was barely on the radar this time last year, when he switched from tight end to pass rushing specialist. Who will be the next breakout Bearcats? Testing numbers suggest that Adrien Robinson is a strong candidate.
Robinson earned an honorable mention in colleague Bruce Feldman's Top 10 national workout warriors list even though the redshirt sophomore was lightly recruited and has played only sparingly so far. But it's hard to ignore the 6-foot-4, 244-pound Robinson's numbers in Cincinnati's weight-room files.
He cleared 11 feet, five inches in the standing broad jump. That performance would have been the best of any NFL combine participant this year. In fact, only three players jumped as far as 11 feet, and they were all defensive backs who weighed about 40-50 pounds less than Robinson.
He also posted a 37.5 inch vertical, to go along with a 4.55-second 40-yard dash.
"He's a big, rangy kid with shoulders wide as the door," Longo said. "You kind of look at him and go, 'Oh, jeez, who's that?' When we first got him, I thought this kid could be something special.
"The potential's there, and now it's up to us to turn that potential into production on the field. With those kinds of numbers, he could be a really good one."
A different kind of athlete who also has freakish numbers is senior linebacker Marcus Waugh. The 5-foot-11, 270-pounder benches 515 pounds and finished 37 repetitions of 225 pounds. The top performing linebackers in the NFL combine did 30 reps, and only player in the entire combine did more than 37.
"He's a beast," Longo said. "He's a rolling ball of butcher knives."
Longo said Waugh could easily bench twice his own weight or more if he wanted. But Longo doesn't want his players lifting more than what is necessary to be successful in football.
Waugh has played fullback, tight end, nose guard and on special teams so far in his career and was being used as a starting inside linebacker this spring. His father, Tom, was a captain on Ohio State's 1979 Rose Bowl team.
"I think he's going to translate it onto the field and be one of those surprise kids," Longo said. "He's not just a weightlifter."
No, he's also a frequent visitor to Longo Beach.