Yet if the Bulldogs were uncomfortable or unhappy, they hid it very well behind the normal banter and rude jokes. This is typical of summer 2006 according to Nowell. "Our attitudes have been good," he noted, even in a wickedly hot month. In fact, "We had our best day of running last Tuesday." And as to why he chooses to conduct the outdoor sessions on the artificial field, where the plastic sprigs set in ground-up tire rubber mounted on a rock foundation becomes literally a ‘heat sink,' the coach has a simple explanation. "You'll rip your (grass) practice fields to pieces with all the sprinting and side-to-side moves."
This approach hasn't hurt anyone, at least in terms of suffering from the climate. Nowell said that he, his assistants, and the training staff present monitor all participants closely. "And you keep your fingers crossed," he added. "It's always a concern of mine but so far, so good."
When Nowell speaks of getting the Dogs in peak condition by August reflects the fact that the calendar is running faster here in mid-July. Once into practice mode, strength and conditioning work becomes more a matter of maintaining than gaining. And for that matter Nowell is pragmatic about what else can be achieved in the waning days of the summer semester.
"If the hay's not in the barn by now it's not going to be there. We just want to continue to polish things up. We've got a few guys with little nagging things, nothing serious, like tweaked hamstrings and slight strains or whatever. We want to get those guys healthy."
There is one group that can still make July gains in strength—the true freshmen enrolled for the second summer semester. Here Nowell has an advantage over the rest of the State coaching staff. He can work with the newest Bulldogs while the position coaches can only ask how they are doing, how they are looking, how they are responding to the pre-pre-practice program. Naturally fans want to know the same things.
"Well, I'm impressed," Nowell said. "The thing I like most is their attitude when you talk to them. It's kind of like when I was coaching high school and coached junior high ball, you'd see those seventh graders the first day of practice so excited to get to work. I just hope they stay excited, because sometimes when you get in the grind and do it every day it tends to get old. I want to stay fresh with them and want them to enjoy it." To that end Nowell limits just how much these kids are asked to do in their introduction to college football life.
"A lot of them look real good but we're not handling a lot of real heavy weights right now. We can watch them run and evaluate how they move, but we've only had them two weeks."
Still, in two weeks some of the freshmen have caught this coach's eye. All of them have demonstrated the right attitudes, he said, yet several have already impressed him with aptitudes. "J.C. Brignone, Mark Melichar, Jamon Hughes is an impressive kid. And Rodney Prince, they're all impressive. And I can't leave out Brandon Henderson. I can't name them all, I know I'm leaving some out."
Yet even just those few names reveal something very encouraging to the future of the program. Four of those youngsters will play on the line of scrimmage, one side or the other. These mentions aren't really an accident either, Nowell admits. He watches the big guys most closely.
"If you've seen me train our athletes, I try to give attention to all our players but that's where games are won or lost. Up front in the trenches. So I make sure I can grab the line-type guys and get a little extra attention."
Head Coach Sylvester Croom accepts the risk of rookies getting ground-down physically and mentally before actual practices start. He's almost counting on it, in a way. As Croom told Dawgs' Bite last week, he wants the first-year players to get to and through the emotional wall kids seem to hit about the third week they are away from home and in the most demanding setting of their young lives. Nowell is a big part of the overall plan of turning new pups into Dogs. Just, he says, at the right pace.
"I agree, it's very important they get here and get a little taste of the summer. I don't think it's a good idea to be here the whole summer with the true freshmen, and it's hard to do that anyway when by the time they get through the Clearinghouse it's already July."
Now it's the middle of July and in two weeks the strength coach will turn the team over to the position coaches. It will be their job to have the Bulldogs at another sort of peak by the end of the month.