A golden gym

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- This is where the change will happen. Talent will become something more here. Promises will be delivered. Fat will become muscle, muscle will become strength. This is where the fourth quarter is won at the University of Alabama.

Scott Cochran's new $9 million studio is filled with sleek dumbbells, rows of bars and weights and supports, machines so technologically advanced yet simplistic it's a mystery what they actually accomplish. These are his tools for sculpting some of the top athletes in the country. Instead of palates of clay, the Crimson Tide's strength and conditioning coach deals in pounds of flesh. Before players ever get to see coach Nick Saban on the practice field, they must first go through Cochran's weight room.

Cochran, a six-year veteran at Alabama, smiles like a proud father as he walks through the freshly constructed two-story, 37,000 square-foot facility. He says he's humbled by coming to work here every day. Five months ago it was just an idea on paper. Today it's further proof that the Alabama administration believes in the job he's doing.

"Why do I deserve this?" he asks solemnly as he leads a tour through the weight room. "Why do our players? Why do any of us deserve this place?"

The 33-year-old is built like a truck with square shoulders and a chiseled jaw. A loose-fitting polo shirt does little to hide the hours he has spent breaking in the new machines. He's constantly in motion. Leading a few dozen reporters through the maze of weights is the slowest he'll move all week.

"This is the biggest, baddest weight room in the country -- no question about it," Cochran says in the tune of a preacher coming in on the wrong radio frequency, the way his raspy voice cracks with every rise and fall. "Everything is state-of-the-art. Everything we have in here is the best of the best."

Four clear doors open up into the indoor practice fields where some of Alabama's underclassmen are throwing the football around. Former four-star tight end and early enrollee O.J. Howard plays catch absentmindedly with his shirt off, revealing a frame that seems destined to trouble defenses. The lean tight end arrived in Tuscaloosa at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds in January. He looks to have added at least a dozen more pounds since then.

"He's always yelling," Howard said of Cochran on signing day. "He better not catch you walking, that's the one thing. But it's fun and he's always going to push you to be your best."

With spring practice still a few weeks away, Alabama's "Fourth Quarter Program" is in full swing. Rising sophomores Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon made the most of Cochran's conditioning regimen a year ago. The two former ESPN 150 athletes grew bigger and stronger, and by the time Week 1 of the season rolled around they were ready to compete in the SEC as true freshmen. Yeldon weighed in at a toned 216 pounds and Cooper bulked up to just shy of 200, big enough to work cornerbacks in tight coverage yet trim enough to get by them and create separation.

With a bigger and more advanced weight room this year, the hope is for even better results. Nine rookies enrolled early and are participating in the offseason conditioning program. Of the nine, maybe half are expected to have a chance to contribute this coming season. For that to happen, Cochran must work his magic now.

Offensive lineman Brandon Hill, who arrived in January tipping the scales at 406 pounds, shed more than 15 pounds in his first month on campus. He said he hoped to trim down to 350 by fall camp.

"I do what Coach Cochran says," Hill said on signing day. "When Coach Cochran does his thing that's all you can do."

Another new offensive lineman, junior college transfer Leon Brown, was working the bench press during Cochran's guided tour, watching tapes of workouts on five flatscreen televisions hung throughout the weight room. Brown, who could compete for the vacant right tackle position, came to Alabama at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. While he won't necessarily have to lose weight before the season begins, he will have to get stronger to compete in the SEC, something with which Cochran is all too familiar. Cochran has helped produce eight NFL linemen since 2008. Five more, including the top-rated offensive guard in the coming draft, Chance Warmack, are poised to join that list.

While NFL draft picks and national championships certainly help Alabama's cause on the recruiting trail, the work Cochran has done has gained notice, too, as the Fourth Quarter Program has become more and more popular. Selling a brand new weight room doesn't hurt the Crimson Tide's cause, either.

"It's jaw-dropping," Cochran says of the players' reaction to the new facility. "But I think if you see not only is this stuff brand new and nice, it's no different than ever before. It's hard work that we're going to put into it. Things don't change."

Things might not change, but the people do. As Cochran spoke, dozens of players were working to change themselves into something better, something more equipped for the rigors of the football field.

If it's the work behind the scenes that has made Alabama into a three-time champion since Saban's arrival, one needs only to look at the weight room to get an idea of what lies beyond the curtain. Together with Cochran, Alabama is building some of the country's top athletes from the ground up.