They did grip work. They did wrist extensions. They stuck their hands in a bucket filled with rice and pushed through it. They grabbed onto numerous plates of weight and just held them as long as they could. "Building that strength in all those tendons, those fibers, those muscles," explains Jose Jose Palma, a member of the NU Football Performance Staff.
But most vividly, in those periods during the offseason called Fourth Quarter Friday, the defensive linemen did this: they paired off with one locked onto the jersey of the other, who then had to chop the holder's forearms in an attempt to break free. "You can do wrist curls as much as you want or develop your forearms big, but at the same time, if you're not used to chopping somebody, it's going to hurt," Palma continues. "So, yeah, it's a competition. But for the guys, I tell them...I want you to build that strength and more, mentally, yes it's going to hurt, but you know your breaking point if you can go a little bit further."
There are two initial variables, explains the defensive end Quentin Williams. "On run technique," he says, "we're actually trying to get our hands on them (the offensive lineman). We're trying to get our hands on them as fast as possible. Passing, obviously, we're trying to get their hands off of us."
So it is no surprise that later, when considering his position coach Marty Long, Williams will say, "Coach always tells us that the good players know how to play with their hands. If you play with your hands, your hands should be beat up (at the end of a game). Your helmet shouldn't be beat up a lick. I think we've done that pretty well this year. I think we've really played with our hands pretty well. Whether it's punching off the ball or it's getting guys' hands off of us in pass rush, that's huge."
"The paring movement of strikes," is how that combat is succinctly described by Long, who has long believed in its efficacy.
That is why, during the off-season, his players spent at least 30 minutes per-day every-other-day with Palma, who is practiced at the Mixed Martial Arts. "They (the coaches) wanted me to make sure they got their hands right," he explains.
"We did boxing-type stuff to focus on using your hands. Or how to block a hand. All that type of stuff," says end Tyler Scott, who is averaging a sack a game. "They did a really good job with us in the off-season. That kind of started the mentality of pass rushing."
No single attribute transforms a thoroughbred into a great racehorse. That same truth should be recalled when considering the recent ascendancy of the 'Cat D line, which entered this season as one of those proverbial question marks under public scrutiny. There were reasons for that. It had, last fall, rarely generated a pass rush, and through that fall it had also been regularly gouged on the ground.
Improvement in those areas, Fitzgerald would often say in the offseason, was a point of emphasis, and through three games this year, that emphasis has reaped obvious dividends. Scott has his three sacks while the big tackle, Brian Arnfelt, has another. Sixteen times opponents have been thrown for a loss and, through three games, those opponents are averaging a mere 80 yards on the ground. "I think through three games we've been pretty solid in the trenches on both sides of the ball," Fitzgerald will allow. "I'm pretty pleased at where we're at on both sides, especially with the defensive line against the run."
"The D line is different from most," says Long, beginning an eloquent soliloquy on that group he coaches. "Some guys think the defensive line just goes and torpedoes into the line and just attacks, that there's no thinking that goes into the game. But there's studying that needs to go on. I shared with those guys that I wanted our guys, in the off-season, to meet, to do the same things the secondary and the linebackers do. Where they get together and jell and get to know each other. That's what they did. They took that upon themselves. Those guys met, they studied the game, they got themselves ready mentally, and they were ahead of the curve, and they got some of the younger guys ahead of the curve, before they got here (for fall practice). That's how Dean (Lowry, the true freshman end) was able to get going earlier. Those guys got together with him in summer school. That's what good teammates do.
"Then what we've done is try to focus on the details of the position. We want to be a better pass-rushing team. We want to be able to help the secondary out, and put pressure on the quarterback, whether its sacks, tips, hits on the quarterback. I tell the guys when a quarterback is hit and you've got to pick him up off the ground, or he has to pick himself up off the ground, it becomes hard for him late in the game. That is an example of what happened last week. We were able to hit (Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig) a few times and, yes, they could have thrown a good pass and it would have been a touchdown. But he had gotten hit a few times and he felt it."
Last offseason, back when they were one of those proverbial question marks, many on the 'Cat D line expressed their displeasure with their performance last fall. That is why, Scott more recently said, "We made it a big point to work on the techniques and the hand combat (needed) in the pass rush and to get to the quarterback. We saw from last year that we weren't using our hands as much. It's something we've always done as a D line. Hand combatives. We really focused on that. And running the hoops, so when you make that move with your hands and you beat an O lineman's hands, when you come off the edge, you have to dip, lean, and get around the edge. That's something we focused on too. We just worked on all those techniques."
They had worked with Palma, the MMA maven, just a bit in the previous offseason, but last January he and the D line were joined at the hip. "Everything I did was always in a football stance. I tried never to take away from that," he will say, explaining his approach. "Most of the time I had them in the four-point stance. That's the most-vulnerable position. You're on the ground already, you don't have a hand up. So every time they had to shoot up, they had to shoot up with both hands and strike first. But at the same time, once they had their hands up, they immediately had to get their hands down to get to the other person (to get his hand's off). If someone's got a grip inside of you, you've got to learn to get their hands off of you."
Aim at the wrist. That was the first lesson he taught them. "You're always going to go for the wrist. Once you bend the wrist a little bit, you put enough pressure on it, they might let go," he says. Then there were advanced lessons on how to attack the opponent's forearm, the opponent's elbow, the opponent's shoulder, and always there were lessons on how to control their own bodies first. "When it first started off, I didn't know how it was going to go. I was interested to see." Palma finally says. "But you see the D line now, they're a little quicker off the ball, they're a little more aware of where their hand placement's supposed should be. At the same time, it's a process. It takes awhile to get the hang of it. But you can see they're doing pretty good."
Here are a few more twists that brightened the offseason training of the 'Cats' ascendent D line. Each of its members would explode off the ball while being restrained by bands and, at summer's end, he would push a 200-pound sled five-to-ten yards and then get off it and sprint another 25. "That was relatively new," says Williams. "We pushed sleds before and we pushed against bands before. But this year we actually did it for conditioning, which was really interesting. It really got us to that point where we felt we were in a game, pushing against someone every play. Ripping off of them and chasing down the quarterback is what the drill was. It was pretty realistic and I think it's paid big dividends for us."