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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 of war. Lots of intense tug of 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 overexertion 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 bloodstream. The condition can cause kidney damage.
From AB: Update: Oregon Suspends Coach Over Rhabdo Episode
Last year, the University of Iowa paid $15,000 to settle a $200,000 lawsuit brought by a football player diagnosed with exertional rhabdomyolysis.
From AB: Rhabdo Headaches Persist for Player, Iowa
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, theRutgersplayerspumpiron, push their heart rates and sweat profusely while laying the foundation for what they hope will be a successful fall.
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," said second-year coach Chris Ash.
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