February 2, 2009

Mat drills mark start of season

If you happened to pass by the team weight room at the Butts-Mehre Building at approximately 5:05 Monday morning, the strange sounds emanating from inside would no doubt cause you to pause.

Mat Drills are now underway.

"I've heard all about them," freshman quarterback Aaron Murray said during a recent interview. "I guess I'm about to find out for myself."

Indeed he is.

For the past 13 years, Georgia strength and conditioning coordinator Dave Van Halanger has implemented his system, which he first introduced while serving in the same capacity for Florida State coach Bobby Bowden before Mark Richt hired him away when he came to Athens in 2001.

"You want your team to be unified," Van Halanger said. "You want your leaders to rise up and be leaders. After what these kids go through in mat drills they think they can take on any challenge."

It's easy to see why.

Van Halanger's program, which takes place the first week in February is designed to get players ready for spring practice in March, but is also supposed to play the seeds for success later in the fall.

Here's how it works:

Mat Drills is made up of five stations, where athletes compete on a wrestling mat doing agility drills, which includes diving to the ground.

That's just the beginning.

There is also a running station, which stresses sprinting, a station for shuttle runs that focuses on side-to-side movement, a rope layout which is meant to build foot quickness and a final station which houses a plastic frame construction that forces players too bend at the knees and move as fast as they can in a football position.

It's all about endurance.

Although there is no contact involved, athletes are required to meet certain criteria at each of the six different stations.

If one person in the group fails to meet the criteria, every person in that group has to repeat the entire procedure.

"That's a lot of pressure because nobody wants to make anybody else have to do it again," Kiante Tripp said. "Nobody wants to mess up."

But invariably, it happens. Mat Drills are not for the faint of heart or stamina.

It's not uncommon to have players puking into one of the many trash cans that line the workout area.

"It happens," defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. "But it definitely makes you a better player. It definitely makes you tougher."

Sometimes, coaches want to see just how tough a player a really is.

Defensive end Justin Houston can vouch for that.

Every now and then coaches want to see just how far a player can be pushed to see what they've really got inside, to see if they have the stamina and want-to necessary to make it through.

Last year, Houston was one of the Bulldogs "chosen."

They just want to see if you've got any heart or if you're going to punk out and quit," Houston said. "Every now and then they'll pick on somebody. They'd send me to the back of the line for no reason and I'd have to start all over again. It was just my turn. Every dog has his day."

Houston admitted the thought of giving in did cross his mind.

"It was tough," Houston said. "I kind of wanted to stop, but Coach G (Rodney Garner) told me to keep going and I was able to finish."

According to Van Halanger, the team's upper-classmen routinely play an integral role as well.

"If a kid is not fired up, the older kids will tell him, 'Hey, you better get fired up, because that is the way we do it here at Georgia,' and that takes a lot of the talking off of the coach," said Van Halanger. "The seniors do a heck of a job leading, and that is what builds the team, and that is why the team is so good. Give your seniors a chance to lead, give them the chance to push kids, but make sure they lead them the right way. Don't just get in someone's face and just scream and yell and cuss, lead them the right way. Encourage them to do great things, and pull them through.

"It makes a difference because it builds unity. Leaders that lead well build unity and morale. Chemistry and morale make championships when you have good players."

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