CLEMSON -- At 5:30 a.m. at Fike Recreation Center it's hard to make the
connection between this and fall Saturday afternoons, bands, pretty
cheerleaders and crowds in Death Valley.
"When the alarm goes off I say, 'Oh, man. Just go do it," says Clemson
linebacker Chad Carson.
Nothing is easy about this morning. It's raining. The outline of the South
upper deck, less than a hundred yards away, is barely visible in the dark.
The last few stragglers scurry in at 5:36.
Over a hundred football scholarship players and walk-ons are here for what
they call mat drills. That's a kind term for Clemson's version of boot camp.
"Coach (Tommy) Bowden likes to refer to the five phases of the season," says
strength coach Joey Batson. "In phase one there is physical strength and
development as we come together as a team."
Phase five seems light years away when Batson's whistle signals the
beginning of warm-ups at 5:37.
No one is late. That's good news. Mat drills are about perfection. And
exhaustion. Any signs of imperfection or exhaustion are not tolerated.
"The goal is to teach players mental discipline," says Batson. "Second, we
get them to go full speed from point A to point B. The coaches are going to
propel them to their breaking point."
All the assistants are here, including the strength training assistants as
well as the managers and trainers. Bowden is usually here, but he's in
Hawaii this week. "Coach Bowden is always dressed nice for that early in the
morning," says Carson. "I think he likes getting up that early."
Bowden brought these early morning drills to Clemson three years ago. They
took some getting used to, but most are used to them now.
"We make it sound really bad to the freshmen," says Carson.
Herring directs the drill.
The drills get started at 5:52 with a blast from Batson's air horn. The
players, wearing an orange, white or brown jersey, break up into seven
groups. There are seven different drills.
Mike O'Cain has players chopping their feet and following his instructions
to go side to side or forward or backwards. Thielen Smith has players
jumping over what look like tackling dummies with both feet at the same
time. Burton Burns has players running through ropes nearly every way a
person can run through ropes. In all, seven stations with coaches and a
manager with a clipboard. Three minutes at each station seem like an
eternity for most. When someone trips, doesn't do a drill right or doesn't
go full speed, a check is put by the name of that person.
At the end of the regular drills - about 6:45 - players do extra work in the
form of gassers depending on the number of checks.
"Freshmen struggle to find out that this is full speed," says Batson.
Most seem to have caught on in the second week of drills. There are a few
players in brown jerseys, which are worn by those that have performed below
The white jerseys indicate an average performer and orange means they've
done something right.
Hamilton (21) waits his turn.
Jersey color can change from day to day, but by the end of drills and the
beginning of spring practice Batson expects 90 percent to be in orange.
"We've got a new team," says Batson. "Last year is over. The seniors left
some pretty big shoes to fill. We're here to find out who's going to be the
leaders this year - who will emerge as a guy that can lead the team through
his work ethic and being disciplined and can demand things from them after
we're through with winter workouts."