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Players grind through winter workouts

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — 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.