South Carolina middle linebacker T.J. Holloman snapped back his answer.
Someone had just posed the question, was this the most difficult offseason the fifth-year player has gone through in his time in Columbia.
“By far,” Holloman answered.
It’s a tradition of sorts for players to heap praise upon a new strength coach, talk about how the new workouts are harder, the expectations higher. The Gamecocks did not disappoint, but their work with coach Jeff Dillman extended beyond simply getting stronger, faster or improving endurance.
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Those months of workouts set expectations, establish a baseline for what the staff demands. Strength coaches are relied upon to build toughness, and the players felt that.
“It set a strong mindset tone,” sophomore defensive end Boosie Whitlow said. “It was more discipline. The giving up, the lows, the hard work, the coming together is what made this wintertime, to have each others’ back.”
Dillman came to USC off stints at Alabama and Florida and was a key hire as Will Muschamp built his staff. He’s worked with renowned speed coaches and the Crimson Tide’s weight room legend Scott Cochran.
Players said there was a different routine, one with more emphasis on mental toughness.
“He wants you to strain,” defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth said of Dillman. “That’s what he preached every day, strain your body. So when the times get hard, it gets easier for you.”
Muschamp warned a team can’t place too much emphasis on how well someone shows in shorts in the offseason, but observing the workouts brought other factors to the forefront.
He said he could see whose work ethic stood out and how the team built the foundation of physical play.
“Winter workouts are about effort, toughness and discipline,” Muschamp said. “It doesn’t take skill to go out and play hard and display toughness, and that’s what we’re trying to get the guys to do on a consistent basis.”
That phrase effort, toughness and discipline is a mantra, one posted many places. The players walk across a “ETD” spray painted on the ground as they stroll onto the practice field.
They’ll need all three and more if they hope to start turning the tide after the program’s worst campaign since 1999
It’s a long way until the Gamecocks take the field against a real opponent. They’ll have 14 more practices of spring ball, another summer of workouts and fall camp before then. But Muschamp’s signature is relentless energy, and his man in the weight room wasted little time in wearing the South Carolina’s players out before they ever took the field.
“He’s just trying to push everyone to the limit,” Holloman said. “Trying to weed out the weak; strong had to survive these workouts.”