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Inside Louisville's winter workouts

3/6/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
L.T. Walker's alarm sounds at 5:15 a.m. The sun won't come up for another two hours. It's 15 degrees outside.

Nothing sounds better than burrowing under the covers and going back to sleep. Especially since Walker knows that an hour of intense running, suicide drills and other conditioning work with his Louisville football teammates awaits.

"You don't feel like getting up," said Walker, a senior defensive tackle. "You're just sitting there on the edge of the bed. But missing one of these would probably be the worst thing you'd want to do, so you might as well get up."

You want to be a college football player? Well, it's not all the glamour of Saturdays, or even just the hotbox of summer practices. There's no such thing as an offseason, and winter workouts can be just as grueling as any midseason conference game.

At Louisville, players report to the Trager Center indoor practice field at 6 a.m. each Tuesday and Thursday for four straight weeks during February and March. These workouts, or mat drills as they're also known, are designed to prod the team back into game shape before spring practice, which begins for the Cardinals on Sunday. Sleep is the first sacrifice.

"A lot of guys say, 'Why do we have to be up at 6 in the morning? What's the use in that?'" senior receiver Trent Guy said. "But it builds mental toughness. It will help us go into spring ready to compete."

This year, the Cardinals tried something new with their winter workouts. For the first 40 minutes, players are split into small teams and go through a circuit of drills together. Players on each mini team earn points based on how fast they complete their drills, and those are added up to form a total team score. The top individual performers and teams are announced at the end of the session.

There's no trophy involved, and points can't be redeemed for airline miles or other perks, but an athlete's interest usually increases once you start keeping score.

"We want them to know there's a winner and loser every time they walk on the field," head coach Steve Kragthorpe said, "so everybody wants to be the guy who wins that race, that drill, that practice and ultimately the game. We put a high premium on competition, not just doing mindless conditioning work."

Louisville has missed out on bowl games the past two seasons and looks perilously light on experience and depth heading into 2009. So the Cardinals know they need to be in the best possible physical shape to have any chance of competing in the Big East. That all starts with the winter workouts, which team officials let ESPN.com observe this week.

Dressed in shorts and jersey tops, players have to be ready to go for stretching at 6 a.m. sharp. That's followed by a light jog down half the football field before they splinter off into their mini teams. Then it's on to the first drill station, where the players split reps until a horn sounds, letting them know they have to run to the next station.

Here's what the circuit held for one of those teams, which included such notables as 2008 Big East newcomer of the year Victor Anderson, potential starting quarterback Adam Froman and starting offensive lineman Abdul Kuyateh:

6:10: Run a slalom of sorts through mats stretched over about 20 yards of the field.

6:15: Run 5 yards, dive to the ground and hold a pushup pose until head strength coach Joe Kenn gives the release sign. Then sprint out 15 yards. On the way back up the field, hold those pushup positions, then spin out of them to the left or right according to Kenn's instructions. Then pop up and sprint out.

6:20: Suicide drills, beginning with one hand on the ground and facing the sideline. Run 5  yards, touch the line, then run 10 yards the opposite direction and touch the line. Repeat and fan out to a distance of 20 yards from the original starting point.

6:27: More suicide drills, this time facing the end zone. Finish by sprinting out to the right or left to make an 'L' shape.

6:33: More suicides, in quick, 5-yard increments, followed by sprints.

6:40: Water break.

"Those drills are probably the hardest part, because every rep you've got to go hard," Walker said. "If you're a competitive person, you don't want to lose a single drill. Plus, you've got the coaches watching you so you have to go hard anyway."

After a three-minute water break, players split off with their position groups for more football-oriented drills. NCAA rules mandate that no actual footballs can be present during these winter workouts, so the players concentrate mostly on footwork and balance.

Kragthorpe stays with the quarterbacks, who perform a 5-yard drop with their hands cocked as if they're about to pass. They then slide 5 yards to their left and right before running as if being chased by a defensive end. Wide receivers work on using their hands to get out of their breaks against simulated press coverage, while linebackers run and duck under hurdles.

At 6:54, the players line up in the end zone for a series of 60-yard dashes. First go the offensive and defensive linemen, rumbling down the field like a herd of bison. The linebackers, tight ends, quarterbacks and kickers follow, moving several paces quicker than their predecessors. Finally, the running backs, receivers and defensive backs take off, looking like Olympic sprinters compared to the first two groups.

Each unit runs the 60-yarders seven consecutive times. Then, for the final chore, each group has to run the length of the field, touch the wall behind the far end zone, and run back to the original starting point -- a distance of about 220 yards. The whole time, coaches scream at the players not to slow down, and there's a fierce competition to see who can win each race. When it's over, many players are grabbing their knees and gasping for air.
The linemen look like they're ready to pass out.

But the workout is not finished. At 7:02, players huff and puff back to their position groups for some more simulation drills. After seven minutes of this, Kenn yells, "Tug of war!"

The entire team then assembles at midfield, where Kenn has produced a long rope. Players divide themselves between offense and defense, and each side picks representatives for a tug of war challenge. The offense takes the first round, with barrel-chested fullback Joe Tronzo serving as anchor. The defense does a set of pushups as punishment.

Kenn says the next group is for those who weigh 190 pounds or fewer, with one heavier anchor. The defense wins this round with linebacker Reinhold Leicht at the end of the rope. Offensive players drop to the ground for pushups.

Then comes the rubber match. Kenn lets each side pick their tug of war players based on weight restrictions, and the offense chooses Froman for its anchor. Both sides are deadlocked for several minutes, each group cheering on its own guys. Froman is crawling on all fours on the ground trying to pull ahead the last few feet as Guy stands over him shouting encouragement. No one seems too concerned that the team's possible starting quarterback might get snapped in half by the rope knotted across his belly.

Finally, Froman and the offense get the last tug and wins the battle. The defense does more pushups.

"There's nothing like a tug of war," Walker said. "You've got to win, because if not the other side will be talking smack all day."

After everyone is untied, Kenn announces the individual and team points leaders for the day. Team 4, which Guy is on, has the highest total.

"My team is undefeated," he says proudly.

Kragthorpe doles out some quick details on that afternoon's meeting schedule, and then, at 7:17 a.m., the players huddle briefly with their position coaches for some final instructions. Their jerseys are drenched in sweat and many have a full day of classes ahead. But their early-morning winter workout is over.

"I don't think too many other students wake up this early and do this kind of stuff," Guy said. "But that's the price you've got to pay to be a football player."