BLOOMINGTON – Testosterone rules the Memorial Stadium weight room. It radiates from the couple dozen Indiana football players lifting weights that would send the average person to the ER.
Music booms loud and raw. There are shouts and grunts, chest bumps and high fives, mini-dance celebrations when personal bests are achieved.
And they are achieved.
Two large monitors alternate images and messages dealing with nutrition, hydration, discipline, dedication and more.
Here is Keith Caton, IU’s head strength and conditioning coach, just over a year on the job after a four-year run at Baylor. His head is shaved, his arms are tattooed and his voice is raw and passionate, as if someone has taken sandpaper to his vocal cords. He paces and encourages, stepping in to help when needed, pushing a pace that will mimic the Hoosiers’ uptempo approach.
Players sprint while pulling sleds; they squat and bench press hundreds of pounds. Gray t-shirts stain dark from sweat. Through it all, an overall theme resonates as clear as a rapper’s rant:
“To me,” offensive lineman Wes Martin says, “it means doing all the little things right so we can win those close games that we seem to be in and come up short a lot of times.”
You have to start somewhere, and in late February, it’s here amid iron bars and plates and one of the nation's largest college strength training facilities.
“This is our area to start the whole process,” Caton says.
IU has been to two straight bowl games, but hasn’t had a winning record since 2007, and that was its first in 13 years. Coach Tom Allen is driven to change that. The football part will come in the spring. For now, it’s about physical preparation with Caton and his staff.
“We’re trying to get bigger, faster and stronger,” he says. “We’re trying to bring a team together.”
And so they push themselves and each other.
"We do a lot of aerobic work, so we will do tempo runs and things like that,” Caton says. “That allows them to not go full speed, get recovery time, but still elevates their heart rate the entire time. That helps them recover faster in between plays.
“We run an up-tempo offense, so we have to be in shape that way. We do that to get those guys aerobically fit. We do sprinting with sleds, straight up sprints and the heavy squats in the weight room. We work two different systems and we try to work them on different days."
Mike DeBord is the new offensive coordinator, but the high-speed spread philosophy former coach Kevin Wilson brought in remains, with a few tweaks.
Caton’s job — ensure the players thrive in it.
“We are just going to continue to progress,” Caton says. “We took what we did last year and made modifications to it. We are just trying to get better and better. The tempo of the offense, talking to Coach DeBord, he wants a fast-tempo offense. We are doing the same training, but we modifying things and advancing a few things."
Take junior Tegray Scales. He’s IU’s first linebacker to earn All-America honors since 1987 after a junior season in which he led the nation with 23.5 tackles for loss, and led the Big Ten with 126 overall tackles. That included a team-leading seven sacks.
Scales has aspirations of an even more dominant senior season, one that would not only lead to a NFL opportunity, but to the winning record so elusive for the program.
As for what has to improve in the off-season, he says, “My flexibility. To survive a whole season in the Big Ten, I have to be flexible and stay healthy.”
IU is six weeks into a seven-week winter workout program. Progress comes without satisfaction because too much remains to do.
“We are never where we want to be,” Caton says. “They have gotten stronger. We just had some guys hit (personal records) on squats. We had a lot of good squats.
“Our guys are getting stronger and they are getting more explosive. We need to make sure they get more powerful and can reproduce that play after play. They need to stay fast and explosive, and not just continue to get stronger.”
Beyond that, it’s about building mindset as well as bodies, about forging team chemistry and toughness, and letting leaders emerge.
“This is a great time for us to step up and become leaders, to initiate that breakthrough, which is what Coach Allen wants,” Caton says.
Behind him the last remaining players head out. The music has stopped, but the quest has just begun.