Mat Drills can well be described by the first line of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities—it is indeed "the best of times [and especially] it is the worst of times." Going through Mat Drills was definitely one of the worst experiences of my life, but it is also one of those experiences that I wouldn't trade. I still vividly remember the butterflies in my stomach and the smell of sweat and vomit that permeated the air. Mats are about more than the physical improvements made through the month of February (and they're major); Mats are about mental toughness and accountability to one's teammates.
When I was getting ready for my first session of Mat Drills as a freshman, all the veterans warned me, "You can't be in good enough shape for Mats—it's all mental. It won't matter how good a shape you're in, you can't be in good enough shape. You've just got to be mentally tough and never quit, never let them break you." I was young and stupid and thought, "Well, I'll be in good enough shape—I'm working my tail off to make sure I'm in good enough shape." Sure enough, I went into the first day in the best shape of my life, and sure enough, I found out that the veterans had been right. Midway through the first session, I found myself blacking out on my feet and literally praying, "God, don't let me die here."
Then, something amazing happened—when my turn came back up, I went from being unsteady on my feet and not being able to see clearly to having full clarity and concentration, being once again able to go through the drills at full speed. That day I found out what the veterans had been talking about—that the mind can force the body beyond its limits, that mental toughness can take you further than your physical conditioning is able. It's a sort of light bulb experience and it gives a sense of invincibility that, no matter how far down I am, no matter how beat up I am, I can still push through. It's a realization I've applied to every part of my life ever since.
Mat Drills are divided into three stations, one of which is broken into three sub-stations:• The Mat—this is the traditional drill from which the drills get their name. Players follow a series of commands, doing up-downs, two- and four-point wave drills, a lot of chopping feet, and sprints to finish.
• Speed ladder—this is a series of form running drills (high knees, A-skips, power skips, etc.), sprint starts, and full sprints. The players generally look at this station as the "rest" station as it's actually the easiest because it essentially involves running sprint intervals.
• Agility Drills—broken into three parts
o Ropes—this is the standard rope drill used by most football programs, but there are all sorts of intricate footwork patterns demanded, and everything has to be flawless.
o Andrews' Drill—Coach Andrews has traditionally run this drill. It involves a series of agililty drills and reaction drills similar to those used on the mat. Because this drill only uses one third of the group and runs at an extremely high pace, it is one of the hardest parts of mats.
o The Pen (commonly just called "Pens")—this is a PVC pen with about a 4.5 foot high top that forces the players to keep their knees bent low. Pens involve chopping feet forwards, backwards, around bags, and side-to-side. Because the knees have to be bent so severely in this drill, it is essentially hell on earth, causing the legs to lock up badly by the end of the drill.
The order that a player goes through these stations changes each day. There are three groups of players (A, B, and C groups), divided roughly by position, with the "A" group consisting primarily of defensive backs, wide receivers, and tailbacks; "B" group consisting of linebackers, fullbacks, and tight ends; and "C" group consisting primarily of offensive and defensive linemen. Walk-on players are fairly evenly divided between each group, with younger walk-ons generally being stuck with the B or C groups regardless of their position. Kickers and punters are with the B or C group, depending on how the numbers work out. The best setup to have is the speed ladder station in the middle, sandwiched between the two harder stations and allowing a bit of a break. The worst is to start with the speed ladder. Those days are unpleasant.
Mats are graded on a scale of 0-4 for each station, making 24 a perfect score (the speed ladder is actually subdivided into two scored groups). Higher scoring players move up in their group, making the front lines of each group very competitive and encouraging players to want to move up from the back, where they're more likely to get sent back because of someone else's mistake.
There is a huge difference between younger players and older players—it is easy to distinguish players who have been through them once or twice from those who haven't, while the true veterans who've been through three or more are strikingly different from everyone else. My calves grew at least an inch each year I went through Mats, and there was a substantial difference in my quickness level was coming out of the drills. Veterans also know the tricks—don't brush your teeth or drink more than one swallow of Powerade or water before you start, otherwise it's all going to come right back up. Michael Boulware also figured out that dumping the remainder of the water from the new water breaks in 2002 on the front of his shirt allowed him to skid just slightly further out on the mat when diving out (as required at the start of every drill on the mat), meaning he'd have slightly less distance to run. (Obviously several of us followed suit.)
In my few years around the team, I only saw a few freshmen enter Mat Drills at a relatively high level, with Lorenzo Booker and Myron Rolle being the two most impressive freshmen I've seen in Mats. Peter Warrick, Anquan Boldin, Rufus Brown, Nick Maddox, Chris Davis, Michael Boulware, and Lorenzo Booker were the most impressive I players I ever saw in Mat Drills from a simple foot quickness standpoint.
Mat Drills are a Florida State tradition that I hope never goes away—despite the past tragedy, they are an indispensable element of our mental toughness and the Seminole mentality. There is a certain pride shared by those who have made it through Mats—it is one of those traditions that binds the various generations of ‘Nole players together. We've all had to go through them, and we all share that special Mat Drills toughness. I remember NFL players coming back and saying, "Yeah, they work us hard, but it ain't Mats." That's precisely the mental toughness that sets FSU players apart from other universities, and Mat Drills are a huge part of that.