March 4, 2010
By Skip Myslenski NUsports.com Special Contributor
Over there, by the wall, they are hop, hop, hopping up-and-down, up-and-down, up-and-down onto stools, and across the way there are others stretched out in the pushup position, their hands on a piece of wood and driving it five yards and then u-turning around a cone and driving 10 more yards and u-turning around another cone and driving five more yards back to their original point of debarkation. Up close here, near one sideline, there's another group backpedaling around more cones, and down there, stretched out like crabs, there's another crawling five yards to the right, back 10 yards to the left, then back five more to where this repetition began.
Think of a heavily-populated hornets' nest just set afire and that, that is just what it looks like at seven on this morning on the field tucked into the north end of the Nicolet Center. But, in reality, it is merely the start of another session of the Winning Edge, the name given to this part of the offseason workout endured by the 'Cat football team. "I remember my first time doing it," linebacker Bryce McNaul will say when this madness ends some two hours later. "As a freshman, you just listen to the upperclassmen. They tell you nothing but terrible things about it and you come in here expecting the worst. I remember my adrenalin was through the roof. I think I ran about 10 yards, then I had the biggest adrenalin dump. I was gassed for the rest of the workout. But once you start to approach it like any other challenge in football, with calm readiness, and just know that you're prepared, you definitely perform a lot better. I think that does come with a little seasoning."
"Freshman year you're like, 'Man,'" cornerback Jordan Mabin will echo. "Sophomore year you're, 'OK. It's not so bad.' This year, so far, I think it's just maturing. I see the big picture, what coach is really trying to do."
Earlier this winter, after a vote by the players, the teams' new Leadership Council was established. Quarterback Dan Persa was on it and so were linebackers Quentin Davie, Nate Williams and Tim Riley; defensive linemen Corbin Bryant and Quentin Williams; defensive backs Brian Peters and Mike Jensen; running back Jeravin Matthews and offensive lineman Al Netter. They, next, drafted teams and gave themselves lyrical names like the NU World Order and the Purple Plague, the Inglorious Catsters and the NU Age Outlaws and the NU Kids On The Block. Now they were set to begin that competition called the Wildcat Games, a competition that will last until late summer and involve everything from classroom performance to community service, from crab crawls to stool hopping to sprints and so much else. "Bring team unity, trust one another and ultimately just competing," Mabin says when asked the purpose of the Winning Edge, the opening salvo of those Games.
"We're out here competing every Tuesday and Thursday (in the drills). Our team's trying to win at each station, to win at each drill, to beat the other guys. It's teaching us a lot of things individually and as a group. We're trying to build a winning attitude in each drill. Say for the cone drill, you have to run left, then run right, a 20-yard shuttle, and you're competing against the guy you're going against. That will translate to the field, say DB against a receiver, you're competing against that one guy. Any position you look at, you're always competing first against one other person, so it brings the competitive nature and attitude out."
"You see an evolution of guys out here," adds McNaul. "I think you have a lot of underclassmen who find out they can really contribute to their team in a positive way. And I think you have a lot of upperclassmen finding themselves in a leadership role out here. The senior class is gone and we're really trying to establish our identity out here, and I think the harder we work and the more successful we are out here, the more that emboldens us and pushes us forward."
So guys are learning to be leaders?
"Oh, yeah. Guys who a year or two ago might have been in the back of the line thinking 'Oh my gosh I've just got to get through this' are now up in the front saying, 'C'mon, guys. Let's do this.' Come September, we need guys like that. I think a setting like this gives us the perfect opportunity to develop those people."
Larry Lilja, the 'Cats' director of strength and conditioning, has escaped the hornets' nest and is now standing on a sideline. "These drills have been around, God, I think back since I was playing," he says, chuckling, when asked about them.
Some, he now explains, are done by the whole team and then there are others that are position specific. A pad level drill for linemen. That is one of the latter. A back-peddling drill for defensive backs. That is another. But in all, he goes on, the emphasis is on acceleration, on body position, even on the angle of the shins when a player makes a move. "You notice," he says here, "that we have somebody filming every station. We'll watch the film and evaluate each player on how he moves, how he changes direction, how he accelerates, and we try to correct any flaws he might have."
But ultimately, he now asserts, all the drills are intended "To develop mental toughness as well as physical conditioning."
"When fatigue sets in, you're trying to develop an attitude, you don't give into fatigue. You push through it because you're actually capable of a lot more than you think you are. You can tell. It's pretty intense. Fast paced. The tempo of this is very quick. The players come to realize they have more gas in the tank than they think they do. They've got to reach that point where they're required to do a little bit more than they've done before."
Plyometric training is the given name of the drills done in the nest and it is aimed at quickly converting strength to speed. It also comes with a tale that stretches back to a Soviet sprinter named Valeri Borzov, who won the 100 and 200 meter dashes the 1972 Munich Olympics. "In the '68 Games he was a middle-of-the-pack guy and then all of a sudden he was the world's fastest man. In the world of track and field, that's a fairly short amount of time to become that good," says Lilja.
"They discovered he was doing this type of training called plyometrics. The theory behind that is you can train your neuromuscular system to become more explosive, to become faster, so when your foot hits the ground, you can apply a greater amount of force in a shorter amount of time. Plyometrics has become a big part of any program nowadays and he was the guy who piqued our interest."
The buzz lessens when these drills end and now the players gather with their position coaches, who spend long minutes discussing techniques and explaining concepts and detailing the logic behind certain Xs and Os. (Quick aside. NCAA rules forbid the presence of footballs at these types of workouts and so the quarterbacks polish their footwork and their faking skills while holding rolled-up towels.) "Does that make sense to everybody?" linebacker coach Randy Bates asks his group any number of times.
This is the tutorial part of the morning and then, when class is over, those teams chosen by the Leadership Council gather together for the fun portion of the program, five games of touch (using volleyballs, of course, so they don't get ticketed by the NCAA police). It is shirts against skins, that is how the sides can tell themselves apart, the NU NU 4 Cocoa Puffs vs. the NU World Order; the NU Age Outlaws vs. the Purple Plague; the Cats L.T.K. vs. the Inglorious Catsters; the NU Money Catz vs. the NU Era; and N.W.A. vs. the NU Kids On the Block.
When it ends, when this morning finally closes, N.W.A., captained by Persa, has run its record to 5-0, leaving it as the only undefeated team in the competition. (Oh, and just so you don't get the wrong idea, N.W.A. stands for Northwestern Athletes.)
"This is the foundation stage of what we're trying to do," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald is saying. The morning's work is now complete and here he is standing in a nest suddenly gone silent.
How does it all translate to September?
"It builds trust, absolutely. You're in the infant stage of this team building trust amongst itself, with the coaches and most importantly peer to peer. What's neat is the variable of, we didn't pick the leaders and we didn't pick the teams. They did as peers. To watch that interaction, for instance, when we get done and go through our discussion" -- and now he begins to read from the paper he is holding -- "'Do you think the Winning Edge is hard work or fun? It's more fun' was the answer from the team I oversee. 'Why? Cuz we're coming together as a team. I'm getting to know guys I didn't know before the Winning Edge.' So there's a lot that that goes into it. Some of that's touchy-feely, but we lose sight of that sometimes. These kids are going to work their tails off. You have to. It's Big Ten football. But I think the teams that are successful over time and consistently improving are the ones that have chemistry and a consistent attitude. They know."
Now he is told about McNaul's comment, the one describing players moving from the back to the front of the line, and here he is asked if he sees the same thing.
"There's a huge growth. You see it in each guy through the three weeks of workouts, then you see it through the years. There'll be a difference in this freshman class between now and next year. By the time they become a sophomore and beyond, they go from hiding to up in the front. It's amazing. It's amazing how much we learn about our team."
Now he is moving, walking toward his office, and here he is saying, "I think our guys respond to being driven, to being coached, to being taken to where they can't take themselves. They love to compete, they love to pull each other along. Your model, we want them to take over ownership. There are certain points of the year, for instance right now, we get done here today (March 4), Friday is our last workout (a weightlifting session). Then reading week, finals week, spring break. Three critical weeks. If they don't have ownership, they don't do anything. OK. Then we go through spring practice, we go through May workouts, June and July, critical months. If they don't have ownership, we don't get what we need to have to be prepared for the season. So, yeah, it's all training for that."
It is often said, he is now told, that the more coach-centric a team is the worse its prospects.
"I couldn't agree with that more," he finally says, not even waiting for the obvious question. "I talk a lot about ownership. If I've got to be the sole proprietor of the organization, we're not going to be very good. I can be one hell of a dictator if I have to be. But we're never going accomplish our goal. We'll go as far as that fear motivation will take us. But the great teams go out there and motivate themselves.
In this society, everybody keeps saying it's about the kid, it's about me, and all that. I think it's the other way around. I think kids want to be part of a team. I think they want to be part of something that's disciplined, something they can take pride in."