PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — The journey from rock bottom starts before dawn for Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights trickle into their bubbled practice facility, escaping the chill of a winter morning. Basketball shorts, hoodie, T-shirt and headphones are the standard uniform. They stretch. They yawn. They warm-up by jogging a few laps. Then ... controlled chaos . An hour of rolling and tumbling, diving and jumping on large gymnastic mats. And tug-o-war. Lots of intense tug-o-war.
Winter is rise and grind season in college football. Players cannot practice with coaches, but they can do conditioning training. Winter workouts have long been part of college football, but they have become more structured, more strategic and more intense as coaches look for any edge in what has become a year-round process of preparing a team.
"I'm sure over the years (winter workouts) have evolved," said Murphy Grant, head athletic trainer and director of sports medicine at the University of Kansas. "The world of collegiate athletics and sports in general have become more competitive. Workouts now among the team, if you can build some camaraderie and competitiveness within your team, hopefully that grows to be a more competitive team overall."
At times, players can be pushed too far.
Earlier this year, Oregon suspended its strength and conditioning coach after three players were hospitalized following over exertion that led to muscle cramping and other symptoms. The Oregonian reported that the mother of one of the players said her son had been diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a condition that occurs when muscle tissue breaks down and leaks into the blood stream. The condition can cause kidney damage.
Last year, the University of Iowa paid $15,000 to settle a $200,000 lawsuit brought by a football player who had been diagnosed with exertional rhabdomyolysis.
But ask any player or coach on a team that improves from one season to the next, and they will point back to winter workouts.
For no more than eight hours a week, spread over no more than five days per week, the Rutgers players pump iron, push their heart rates and sweat profusely while laying the foundation for what they hope will be a successful fall.
"That shared suffering that we go through, that really connects us as a whole," Rutgers defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph said. "It brings us together. When you see the guy to the left and the guy to the right of you hurting real bad, you pick him up and it just builds that trust and that closeness, that bond."
Rutgers has a long way to go. The Scarlet Knights went 2-10 in 2016 and were probably the worst team in a Power Five conference, going 0-9 in the Big Ten by an average margin of 31 points.
"Days like today, this is where your team is built," second-year coach Chris Ash said. "This is where your chemistry is built. This is where your toughness is built. Your accountability. Your discipline. All that has to happen in the offseason."
At this time of the year, the strength and conditioning coach becomes the most important person on staff. At Rutgers that is Kenny Parker, a former Florida football player who was an assistant S&C coach at Ohio State when Ash was defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes in 2014 and '15. Parker learned under Mickey Marotti, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's longtime strength and conditioning coach, top lieutenant and confidant.
"He's going to be tough. He's going to be demanding. But he's going to love them and he's going to care about them," Ash said of Parker. "At this time of year he's the head coach of the team."
Parker is a former defensive lineman whose voice booms while leading conditioning drills, but sounds more like a kind-hearted high school guidance counselor when chatting about his job in his office off the weight room.
Asked what he is trying to accomplish with offseason workouts, Parker sums it up with one word: "Brotherhood."
To build the brotherhood, Parker designs a program that often includes excruciating physical exertion. The workouts have to be grueling, but safe.
"Our job is to maximize these players' abilities and keep them healthy," Parker said.
While the Scarlet Knights work the mats, alternating between agility drills and competitive drills (tug-o-war matches using ropes or huge truck tires), head athletic trainer Brandon Armstrong roams the field.
About a dozen student assistants, carrying water bottles, slowly walk between the mats and through the players, making sure a drink is rarely out of arms' reach.
Armstrong works with Parker to make him aware of which players might be limited or held out of the drills because they are recovering from injuries. On this morning, a handful of Scarlet Knights are off to the side, riding stationary bikes and pushing and pulling weights.
During drills, Armstrong keeps watch, looking for potential problems.
"After doing it for years you realize, you can watch a guy, you can look at a guy and be like, he's struggling. Let me pull him to the side. A lot of the times, if a guy is really, really struggling or he's on the verge of cramping or he does cramp we'll pull him to the side," said Armstrong, who also has worked for Alabama and the New England Patriots and has a strength and conditioning background. "But instead of taking him out of the activity let's modify the activity. Let's go get on the bike. Let's go do something you can do to keep working while the rest of the team's working."
Learning to deal with discomfort is part of winter conditioning.
"They have to learn to grind," Armstrong said. "They have to embrace that it doesn't feel good. Football doesn't feel good. Sometimes you have to give a guy a hug and say, 'You're going to be OK. This is normal. Let's push through it.'"
Armstrong said getting players through the workouts safely has a lot to do with proper rest and hydration both before and after.
"You hydrate the night before. You get your mind right. When I wake up I'm just really excited to go," Joseph said.
Ash said he can see a big difference in how his players handle offseason conditioning, especially Wednesday's grueling mat drills, in his second year. Last year, Ash said, the Scarlet Knights were trying to survive the workouts. This year, they are competing.
"This is definitely where we make the season," senior offensive lineman Dorian Miller said, "and figure out who we're going to be."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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