Summer Crucible

WVU strength coach Mike Barwis stands in front of a group of about 70 Mountaineer football players gathered in a semicircle around him on the AstroPlay surface of Milan Puskar Stadium on a sweltering June afternoon. A few players, who have full-time jobs this summer or have afternoon classes, already worked out in the morning, some starting as early as 5 a.m. But most of the 2005 Mountaineers listen intently to Barwis's gravely voice as he gives instructions for the day's workout.

Basically all the returning scholarship football players and many of the walk-ons are participating in Barwis's workouts this summer, as are 19 newcomers, including the likes of J.R. House, Jason Gwaltney, Ryan Dawson and Zac Cooper. Technically summer workouts are voluntary in Division I-A college football, but then again, technically breathing is also voluntary. But if you want to survive in this world, breathing is a good idea, and to survive in the world of big-time college football, strength and conditioning workouts had better be a daily ritual.

After describing the afternoon's various conditioning and speed drills (most of have already completed the day's strength work), Barwis gives the players a heads up about the next day's activity.

"Tomorrow there will be a bus out front of the building (the Puskar Center). I want everyone on it by three. Don't wear cleats," says Barwis in his heavy Philadelphia accent.

"What are we going to do?" asks one timid soul, wondering what lies ahead, as so far all the workouts have taken place at Mountaineer Field.

Barwis chuckles, a little too sinister for comfort, "You'll find out tomorrow. But I can promise you one thing, we're not going to #$@%& Kennywood (the Pittsburgh area amusement park)."

Such is the life of a Mountaineer football player in the summer. Sweating, straining, running, lifting. Every football player realizes that strength and conditioning workouts are a necessity to thrive in today's highly competitive athletic world. But that doesn't make the drills any easier, even for the sadists in the group who actually claim to enjoy working out. Rare is the Mountaineer player who doesn't lose his lunch during some of Barwis's hyperintensive workouts at the beginning of the summer.

This year's Mountaineers claim with pride that Barwis is working them harder than ever before. Of course that mantra seems to ring from the players each summer, but this year's group claims its true.

"I feel things are going very good. This is definitely the hardest we've ever worked, whether we wanted to or not," stated senior safety Mike Lorello. "We've also had the best attendance we've ever had. All the scholarship athletes are here and then some. It's been pretty good so far.

"This year there has been a lot of new stuff," added Lorello. "For the most part the lifting is still the same. We have the same cycles. It changes every week, but we do the same cycles we do every year. But the running and agility, those things are more advanced this year. Mike is definitely pushing us harder this summer than any of the past ones."

One of the new running drills, and the one that is the most notorious so far, has been something Barwis calls "double fifths." In past summers, the Mountaineers have had to run a lap around the football field in a prescribed length of time (faster for the skill players than the linemen). Then after a short rest, the run is repeated. That one lap is called a "fifth," because it's approximately a fifth of a mile. Obviously, a double fifth is two laps, and two certainly is tougher than one.

"Right now we're running double fifths, which is two laps around the football field," explained junior safety Abraham Jones. "The first one, he gives us two minutes and 10 seconds for the speed guys, and then the second time around we get two minutes. After that, we do single fifths, and we have 65 seconds to make it on the first one. Then he cuts five seconds off for the second one. It's pretty tough. Mike likes to switch things up. Just when you think you're doing the toughest drill possible, he turns it up a little and makes it even tougher."

The weather in northcentral West Virginia throughout much of June and July has been nothing if not hot. The previous couple of years, June was often rainy and relatively cool, but this year the temperatures have been in the high ‘80s and low ‘90s. That can make for a tough workout, but the players accept the adversity.

"It has been a lot hotter this summer, and Mike is making things 10 times harder than in the past, but that will all be good for us in the long run," noted Jones. "Being from the South (Alabama), the heat doesn't bother me as much as some of the other guys, but it does seem to be effecting some of the other guys. Mike is a good motivator, though, and he keeps everyone going, no matter how hot it is."

"I've noticed that it's hotter so far this year than in the past, but I haven't noticed that that has made the workouts any tougher," added Lorello. "I always try to work out in the afternoon in the heat of the day anyway. You have to get used to the heat, because we're going to play in it. You might as well get used to it now."

"It seems like every practice and every summer workout has a new twist, but you just have to push through it," explained sophomore defensive lineman Keilen Dykes. "Summer is the toughest. It's hot outside. You just want to lay up in the house. It's hard enough just rolling out of bed, say nothing of working out. It's hard, and Mike Barwis pushes us to the limit, but we have to get through it, because in the end, it makes us better players."

Dykes is a young defensive lineman of nearly limitless ability. At 6-4, his frame is a chiseled 295 pounds. He's the first to admit that the workouts are making him a better football player, but he's also happy to point out the added bonus that comes with pumping up.

"The hardest part is the first two weeks," said Dykes, a native of Youngstown, Ohio. "After you make it through that, you feel like you can make it through anything. I know it helps me become a better player, and there's an added benefit – it also makes me look better for the girls. I want to look good for the ladies. At the end of the day, my body is tired and sore, but I know I look good for the ladies, and let's face it, you want to look good for the ladies, especially in the summer time."

Junior offensive lineman Dan Mozes was standing near Dykes when Keilen was talking about "looking good for the ladies."

"Defensively linemen may think of that stuff, but offensive linemen, we don't worry about looking good for the ladies. We're big, ugly guys, and we know it," laughed Mozes, a first-team all-Big East selection last fall. "Workouts aren't going to make us any prettier, no matter what we do.

"Maybe I'm different, but I actually enjoy the workouts," added Mozes. "You see yourself getting bigger, and you see yourself getting better. After I had surgery (on his shoulder, which forced him to sit out spring drills), I wasn't able to work out much, and I got down to 260. Now that I'm working out again, I'm getting back up to the bulky guy I used to be. I enjoy that look."

As Barwis puts his charges through new and interesting forms of torture, he's holding the ultimate drill until the end, using it as a carrot (or a whip, depending on your perspective) to insure complete dedication this summer.

"Right now they're using the Law School Hill for motivation," explained Jones. "They say if we come to every workout and do every workout, we won't have to do the Law School Hill. Everyone wants to avoid the Law School Hill. It's not really an endurance thing when you try to run the Law School Hill; it's more of a mental thing. That's by far the toughest thing we do."

Obviously the proof of West Virginia's summer workout effort will be told in August, when head coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff open fall camp. Rodriguez and his assistants are extremely limited as to what they can do with the players in the offseason. Barwis and his strength and conditioning team are the ones who are hands on at this point in time, but Coach Rod is certainly aware of what's happening in the workouts. He knows the product he puts on the field this fall is being molded and shaped in the heat of the summer.

"According to our strength coaches, they've been really pleased," explained Rodriguez, who is getting ready for his fifth season of WVU's head coach. "They've had great attendance, and the attitude has been really super. It also looks like some leaders are starting to emerge. What we hope, as coaches, is that when we start practice in August, everybody is healthy, in shape and ready to go."

This article appeared in a recent edition of the Blue & Gold News. Now in its 18th year, the Blue & Gold News provides articles, interviews, columns, photos and more that you won't find anywhere else. Complete your coverage of the Mountaineer sports scene by subscribing to the Blue & Gold News today!

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