This is the first of a two-part interview with USC strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. To read part one, click here.
The tweets told the story.
Shortly after their daily (Monday-Thursday) two-hour session with strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and his well-organized staff, many of South Carolina's players turned to social media such as Twitter to describe how strenuous the workouts were.
By all accounts, this summer's workout regimen was the most difficult - yet potentially rewarding considering the high expectations for the Gamecocks - of Fitzgerald's three seasons overseeing USC's strength and conditioning program.
"We upped the intensity this summer," Fitzgerald told Gamecock Central in an exclusive interview on Thursday. "We have an older team, guys who have been here for a while. We decided we have to go for it, so we pushed them a little bit harder. We ran them harder than we ever have. The lifting was similar to what we've done in the past, but they just ran harder."
The sprints were both longer in terms of length and higher in number. Individual players were expected to complete their sprints within a specified time set by the strength and conditioning staff. If they didn't, the penalties were harsh.
"We ran longer distances. Instead of short shuttles we did longer gassers," Fitzgerald said. "And we ran more of them. We tried to hold the guys accountable to each other for making their times. If one guy didn't make his time, the whole team ran for that person. It was kind of neat to see it happen."
NCAA rules limited the amount of time Fitzgerald could spend with the Gamecock players to eight hours per week. They worked out four days per week for two hours each day.
In the first week of summer workouts, USC "ran a lot of sprints," Fitzgerald said, because several players had trouble making their designated times. However, as the summer wore on, the number of players failing to post sufficient times diminished.
"As the summer went on, they started understanding they had to make their times," Fitzgerald said. "The guys knew that if they didn't make it, the whole team would have to run another one. That was good. We could push them pretty hard. There was a lot of peer pressure. Guys would usually give that last push to make sure they made their time."
Even though summer workouts were tougher than in years past, USC had almost 100 percent attendance at every workout, Fitzgerald said.
In the weight room, USC sought more "volume" in terms of number of reps. But they didn't just stick to the "meat and potatoes"-type lifts, also concentrating on the core with exercises that would help strengthen the abdomen such as pull-ups and other "grip" workouts.
"We decided to go a little faster in there to get more bang for our buck," Fitzgerald said. "We did a lot of sets. We would go in there, show them the plan, but we would over-plan it. We usually only had an hour, but we planned an hour and 20 minutes worth of stuff and tried to get it all in. We were more worried about getting more sets in. We were just trying to build up their engines."
Workouts on Monday and Wednesday were dedicated to improving speed and athleticism with high-intensity sprints. Many of the drills mimicked those at the NFL Combine, Fitzgerald said, like the 40-yard dash.
Who emerged as the fastest player on the team? Freshman Damiere Byrd, who won the single winner-take-all race "going away," Fitzgerald said.
"He can fly," Fitzgerald said. "But we had some other guys on the team improve their speed tremendously. Marcus Lattimore and Stephon Gilmore are faster than they've ever been. They really look good. But they're competitive. They want to be at the top."
On Tuesday and Thursday, the team focused on conditioning with high-tempo workouts featuring full gassers (200-yard sprints), half-gassers, sled pushes, upper body lifting, up-downs and shuttle runs.
Each day at the end of the workout, the players engaged in a competition pitting the offensive players against the defensive players. Unlike previous years, the entire team did not divide up into small teams led by designated captains or devote an entire workout to team competition.
"We thought that was kind of wasteful," Fitzgerald said. "So we had less organized competition and a little bit more individual work with the competition sprinkled in. As a result, we did a little more work than we have in the past."
During the competition phase, the defensive backs would square off with the wide receivers, for example, while the defensive line would face the offensive line.
"Instead of doing 12 different teams, we decided to go by position and the leaders will emerge and then dump everything into two pots, offense and defense," Fitzgerald said.
The winner of the summer long competition? The defense by 12 points (365-353).
Each afternoon, the players often did Pilates and other similar exercise programs. Even though the workouts spearheaded by Fitzgerald only occurred four days a week, some players would work out on their own on Saturdays as well.
Who emerged as the leaders at each position?
WR/RB: Marcus Lattimore
LB: Damario Jeffery
TE/FB: Justice Cunningham
DL: Devin Taylor
Gilmore won the award for the top overall worker during the summer.
Pound-for-pound, the strongest players on the team were Byron Jerideau (the strongest player on the team, unseating Travian Robertson), Kenny Miles and Matt Coffee. In fact, if one goes by weight-lifting records, Jerideau is the strongest player in USC history.
In addition to all of the above, USC also held a one-day "Gladiator" competition which was "every man for himself" with no teams. The competition included power ball, agility drills ("who stole the bacon" with tennis balls, etc.), toughness drills (four people in a ring and the last man standing wins).
Not surprisingly, Swearinger, long known as one of the toughest, meanest players on the team, won the Gladiator competition.
"We wanted to see who the baddest guy on the team was," Fitzgerald said. "It was just a one-day event. Toughest guy wins, and D.J. won."
Click here to read part two of the interview, where Fitzgerald talks about specific players and how they performed in summer workouts.
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