Mats Remain an Vital Part of Program

ATHENS – A 5-foot-9 ball of muscle, there aren't many players at Georgia who attack the weight room with as much ferocity as Rennie Curran.

Since high school, he has made the gym a home, and burning muscles and stinging lungs have always motivated Curran rather than intimidated him.

For all his strength and athleticism, however, even Curran admits to dozing off in class from shear exhaustion following a morning of mat drills, Georgia's offseason agility training designed to sap every bit of energy out of its players in preparation for a new year.

"There's no amount of training that can prepare you for that level of intensity," Curran said. "It's an hour-and-a-half of non-stop work."

Just a few weeks removed from the end of a 10-3 season, the preparation began for 2009, and the workouts – as usual – were excruciating. But after the first day of mat drills this year, a funny thing happened.

The entire team, drained of energy and drenched in sweat, gathered in the center of an oversized wrestling mat and celebrated. Three-hundred-pound linemen and slender receivers piled together, jumping and screaming for a full five minutes after one of the most grueling workouts of their lives.

"It was really something crazy that I had never seen happen before," said quarterback Joe Cox, who has survived the month-long test of mental and physical endurance three times already in his career.

It was a scene Georgia's strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger hadn't seen often either, but he was hardly impressed. That, he said, was just Day 1.

"They jumped up and down like crazy that first day," Van Halanger said. "That second day they didn't. They got a little more tired."

While every school's offseason conditioning program involves some type of agility training, the mat drills at Georgia are unique. Over the years, they have become the stuff of legend – or nightmares, depending on the player's perception. Georgia's players speak of the mental and physical challenges of mat drills with equal parts fear and reverence. They are designed create leaders, not just athletes. They're meant to build character while building muscles. They're the ultimate test of the individual and the team, and only the strong survive.

A weight-room marvel coming out of high school, Curran said he was unquestionably intimidated before his first day of mat drills. Tales of the grueling 10-session workout spread like campfire ghost stories – but the gory details of mat drills are usually true. Players have the dates circles on calendars months in advance and dread their imminent arrival.

"They're scared to death," Van Halanger said. "They don't sleep that night. Even the older kids don't sleep much at night because they're thinking about it. Once they're in it and get it, they understand, hey, I can do this. But it's going to take every bit of effort you've got."

Georgia's version of mat drills actually originated 25 years ago to make offseason conditioning simpler, Van Halanger said. Not for the players, but for the coaches.

When Van Halanger joined the coaching staff at Florida State in 1983, the Seminoles spent long hours every afternoon working on agility drills, weight lifting and distance running. It was time consuming for the coaching staff and players routinely missed the workouts because of class.

After a year, Van Halanger approached head coach Bobby Bowden with an idea. Rather than spend hours every afternoon keeping players in shape, he suggested a condensed morning session that tested players' endurance both mentally and physically. It would be a full day's workout packed into 90 grueling minutes.

"Well, buddy," Bowden told Van Halanger, "let's try it and see if I like it."

After one session, the legendary Florida State coach was convinced, and when Van Halanger brought the routine to Athens nearly two decades later, not much had changed.

The team is broken into three groups – linemen, small skill players and big skill players – but offensive tackle Vince Vance said the big boys aren't given any special treatment. Each group endures three sessions of all-out effort, and quitting is considered an unforgivable sin.

The first session lasts about 20 minutes and includes basic agility drills performed on a large wrestling mat, which is where the workout got its name.

The second station includes form runs and sprinting designed to force players employ proper technique. This year, Van Halanger added a new drill in which players run quick-feet drills through a ladder draped across the floor – his first new addition in years.

Van Halanger calls the final session the quickness station. Players perform a side-to-side NFL-style shuttle drill, a turn-and-run shuttle drill and a running-ropes drill for about seven minutes each. That's followed by a series of agility tests performed inside a four-and-a-half-foot-tall cage made from PVC pipes. The players work on football skills while being forced to bend their knees and stay in a proper body position.

"Every drill, it's not a football drill so to speak, but it's all football-related," Van Halanger said. "You have to be in a football position, and you have to move your feet 100 miles-an-hour, you've got to go side to side and be quick, and you've got to go when you're tired."

It's not what the players do in each session that makes mat drills so arduous, however. It's how they do it.

A player only finishes a drill after it has been executed perfectly. A mistake means the player returns to the beginning and does the entire drill again. Another mistake results in a third try, then a fourth and so on until everything has been done to the coach's satisfaction.

"The coaches want to see you fight," Curran said. "They want to see if something doesn't go your way, how are you going to respond? That's one of the biggest parts of mat drills is building that mental toughness and just seeing what you have inside you, what kind of drive you have and what kind of person you are. It tests your character."

After each drill, the players are then graded. The best get an ‘A,' and the worst get an ‘F,' and the grades are posted in the weight room for the rest of the team to view. There are more than 50 healthy scholarship players participating in this year's mat drills, and Saturday, Van Halanger handed out just three ‘A' grades – to seniors Bryan Evans and Prince Miller and junior Reshad Jones.

When the session begins, the three are dressed in special "Big Dawg" shirts given to the top performers and are given the privilege of leading each drill that day. The rest of the players follow in order based on their own grade, with the weakest performers going last.

"Every day, kids are fighting for a grade," Van Halanger said. "They want to be graded well so they can move up in the line."

Even the veterans fail often, but giving up is not an option for anyone. Drills are done in unison, and if one player doesn't make it through, no one else can advance to the next station.

By the time the last player is running through the drill for what he desperately hopes will be the final time, the rest of his teammates are crowded around him, cheering and offering support.

It's a system that inherently creates a sense of togetherness while developing leaders among the best performers that coaches hope will translate to the field on game day.

"There are going to be days when you get sent back in every drill and you have to re-do it over and over again to the point where you feel like you can't do it anymore," Cox said. "But that's when you have the rest of the team standing behind you cheering you on. That's what gets you through tough times. That's what gets you through tough games – just having guys beside you that you know will go through the fire with you. That's what it's all about."

During mat drills, survival becomes the primary goal for most players. Months later, however, when they're on the field, the seconds are ticking off the clock, and the scoreboard says their prospects are bleak, that's when the real lessons of mat drills are learned, Curran said.

Late in the fourth quarter against South Carolina last season, the Gamecocks were on the verge of scoring a go-ahead touchdown when Curran plunged into a pile near the goal line and forced a fumble to save the game. He was thinking back to what he had overcome in mat drills for inspiration.

When Georgia returned to the field for the second half against Alabama trailing by 31 points, Curran said the challenge never seemed too great because of what he had accomplished in mat drills. When his muscles were cramped and his lungs burned, he knew he had more to give.

"They'll break barriers," Van Halanger said. "They'll be able to understand once they get through it, they'll feel like they can conquer the world because they went through mat drills. They went through the hardest thing they've ever gone through in their lives to perform on a football field, and they defeated it."

That's what makes mat drills special, wide receivers coach Tony Ball said. Years after players leave Georgia – whether they have gone on to the NFL or simply found a job in an office and started a family – the lessons they learned during those grueling 90 minutes on a crisp January morning stick with them.

"They think of the mat drills and how it shaped or molded them," Ball said. "It's something that leaves a lasting impression on a young man. We are setting the stage for how things are done. This is the Georgia way."

Despite that celebration after the team finished its first day on the mats, Van Halanger knows the players will breathe a hefty sigh of relief when its all over – assuming their lungs are still capable of such an act. Down the road, however, he also knows they'll look back on the past month as one of the best of their lives.

The Bulldogs still must survive two more sessions of mat drills this year. Van Halanger used to hold sessions three times a week, but with spring practice starting later this year, he cut workouts back to Wednesdays and Saturdays to give players more time in the weight room.

Last week, Thomas Davis, a former Georgia standout and current member of the Carolina Panthers, came to visit the Bulldogs' locker room. The players had just finished their Wednesday session, and Davis looked at the exhausted group with a broad smile.

It had been years since he was in their shoes, but the memories of conquering mat drills remained vivid in his mind. He remembered what it was like when his muscles burned and his mind reeled after finishing a day on the mats, and he wanted the players to appreciate the pain as much as he still did.

"Don't just survive them," Davis told the players. "Embrace them."

Years removed from his playing days at Georgia, those 90-minutes sessions sprinting across a wrestling mat and hunched under PVC pipe with his teammates were what he missed most.

"These mat drills help build you a team," he said. "Everybody wants to go to the NFL, but the greatest times you'll have are right here."

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