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June 14, 2006

Summer conditioning off to encouraging start

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Summer conditioning in college football has come a long way.

It used to simply involve a group of players getting together for some running or pass skeletons.

Not anymore.

While the workouts are still considered "voluntary" under NCAA rules, they are essential to keeping the players in top condition during the time period between the start of summer school and fall camp.

They have also become highly regimented affairs where the players lift weights, run sprints and engage in agility and quickness drills under the watchful eye of the strength and conditioning coach.

At South Carolina, that man is Mark Smith, whose association with head coach Steve Spurrier began in 1998 when he was named Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at Florida.

After a tumultuous first summer in 2005 marked by the reluctance of some players to participate in the conditioning program, the first two weeks of the second summer program has been fairly uneventful.

In other words, unlike this time last year, the players as a whole appear to have bought into the belief that if they follow Spurrier's lead USC will become a consistent winning football program.

"All scholarship players are here," Smith reported. "The attendance is better this year. Everybody has done a good job. The players are closer. They encourage each other, push each other more than they used to. When a guy gets tired, you see other guys trying to pick them up."

Last summer's workouts were lightly attended, much to the displeasure of Spurrier, who revoked some scholarships and engaged in a war of words with the High School Coaches Association.

Not so this year.

The comfort level has increased dramatically for the players as Spurrier's second season as USC head coach approaches. The Gamecocks were 7-5 last season and participated in a bowl game for the first time since 2002.

"The guys know what to expect," Smith said. "We're farther along than we were last year. Just looking at the way they can move and the way they can run. We've come a long way with their physical body makeup. But we've still got a long ways to go."

One of the keys to a successful summer conditioning program, Smith says, is convincing the players that the work they put in now will pay off in the fourth quarter of a tight game this fall.

"You try to emphasize the point to them that the harder they work now, it's going to pay off later when the fourth quarter comes around," Smith said. "They have to keep pushing and fight through the tired feelings they may have."

In addition to nearly perfect attendance, the attitude among the players has greatly improved this year as well.

"I can't really single one guy out because we've had a lot of guys make a lot of progress," Smith said. "The attitude has been a lot better. It's a lot more upbeat. Having success last year was a big thing. The guys see that if they work hard and do the right things, they'll be successful."

The players lift weights four days a week and run four days per week, Smith said. They have the weekends off before starting the process over early Monday morning.

The weight lifting schedule for each player depends on his summer class schedule. Each session lasts between 45 minutes and one hour, Smith said.

Weightlifting periods are currently held each day at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.

When the incoming freshmen report to campus in early July for the second session of summer school, a 1 p.m. block will be added to the weightlifting schedule.

And when they in a few weeks, Smith suspects they will have a surprise waiting for them.

"Guys coming from the high school level really don't know what to expect," said Smith, who claims Spurrier is tougher on the players than he is. "Once they get here it's kind of a shock to them. After a while, they get adjusted and go on from there."

While the incoming freshmen are not yet participating in the summer conditioning program, Smith provided each of them a workout program a few weeks ago.

"They can follow along with what we're doing here so they can keep pace at home," Smith said. "We let them know what needs to be done and how they should approach it."

An indication of the team's improved strength is the increased number of players who can lift 400 pounds.

"We have a few people who can do it," said Smith, who warned that the amount of weight a player can bench press does not indicate how good of a football player he will be.

"People should understand that the bench press does not have a lot to do with football," Smith said. "You need to be strong up top but your lower-body strength and your explosion down low is far more important. Football is a lower-body game. You need to be strong up top but you need to be just as strong or even stronger down low."

Syvelle Newton, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in late October, is lifting weights alongside his teammates during the latter stages of his rehabilitation.

Newton, who caught 27 passes for 297 yards and rushed 21 times for 152 yards before his injury, is expected to be at full speed when fall camp opens on Aug. 5.

"He can't do everything but he's come a long way," Smith said. "He's on schedule to probably be back with us at the start of camp."

All-American wide receiver Sidney Rice, eager to improve on last season's historic numbers, has become bigger, stronger and faster as a result of the conditioning program, Smith said.

Quarterbacks Blake Mitchell and Cade Thompson have progressed physically, a necessity since Spurrier's offense rarely provides maximum protection and exposes the quarterback to constant physical contact from rushing defenders.

"Blake has done a tremendous job," Smith said. "He had a great winter workout last winter, and he's working real hard this summer and doing everything we've asked."

The coaches hoped Thompson, who played well in the spring game, would add about 15 to 20 pounds of muscle to his 175-pound frame during the off-season.

"He needed to get bigger and stronger but he's working and attempting to do that," Smith said. "It's going to take him some time."

Tommy Beecher has also participated in summer conditioning, a strong signal the redshirt freshman from Concord, N.C., intends to remain at USC after reports of a transfer swirled around him a month ago.

The players focus on the legs and lower body on Monday, upper body on Tuesday, lower body on Wednesday and return to the upper body on Thursday.

The running schedule is just as regimented. Sessions take place early in the morning on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The players are required to report to the site at 5:30 a.m.

"We have days where we do more conditioning runs (sprints), and then there's days where we work on speed and agility and change of direction and things of that nature," Smith said.

The running sessions take place either on the Bluff Road practice fields (one day a week) or at the Indoor facility across from Sarge Frye Field.

The distances for the sprints range between 50 and 100 yards.

Under NCAA rules, Smith and his staff of three full-time assistant strength coaches supervise the workouts. The USC coaches are prohibited from contact with the players during the workouts.

Defensive tackle Stanley Doughty, who weighed as much as 330 pounds last season, was told by the coaches he had to lose weight in order to see substantial action this season.

Doughty remains a work in progress.

"He has to lose weight. He's working at that," Smith said.

Defensive tackle Matt Raysor has also lost weight, Smith said, and is approaching the figure the USC coaches set for him when fall camp opens.

One of the most common mistakes college players make is the failure to appreciate the role that excellent conditioning, obtained only through endless sprints, plays in having success on the football field, Smith says.

"Kids really don't know how much running they have to put forth to get their bodies in shape," Smith said. "A lot of guys will stay in the weight room and lift. But they won't do the running. You've got to be able to run because if you can't run it doesn't matter how strong you are."

Smith spent several days this spring in Charlotte observing how the Carolina Panthers of the NFL operate their strength and conditioning program.

Smith worked as the strength and conditioning coach for the Washington Redskins during Spurrier's two years as head coach.

He has combined his own knowledge with his professional experiences to form the current strength and conditioning program for the Gamecocks.

"I've tried to put together a program that will be suitable to accomplishing what we're trying to accomplish here," Smith said.

With all the talk in recent months about the need for new facilities at USC, the new football facility underneath the South stands at Williams-Brice Stadium provides Smith with everything he needs to perform his job, including a state-of-the art weight room devoted strictly to football.

"We have a nice, big facility and we have everything we need to get the job done," Smith said.

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