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Husker Football Practice, 03.27.13

The Huskers did more than just practice football this spring. There was also a return to "The Program."

There were no anxious visits to the deep end of the pool this time. But that didn’t mean things were going to be easier.

Eric Kapitulik stood in front of a room full of Huskers recently and let them know that right off the bat.

“All those things you were held to last year, you’re going to be held to this year,” Kapitulik told the Nebraska football team. “But we’re going to step it up a notch, men.”

Over the next two days, the Huskers would see exactly what Kapitulik meant.

There would be taxing exercises out of the Navy SEALs' workout book. There would be jousts against the imposing members of Kapitulik's training staff. There would be loud tugs-of-war. One ended with running back Ameer Abdullah, a member of the victors, shouting at the defeated, "Let's go! Let's go!"

There would be such physical tests as holding another man over your shoulder while doing squats. Oh, and then bear crawl to the next drill and do pushups with another man hanging on you, please.

Actually, nix the please. Just do it.

And then report for more of the same at 5:30 a.m. the second day, the day Kapitulik referred to as a visit to "the house of pain."

A test of the body, for sure. But just as much a test of the will.

For the second straight spring, Nebraska players took on these tests in Kapitulik’s military-style training regimen called The Program. For the second straight spring, those in the Husker program believe a payoff will come from it.

“It gave some of our players who have been in our program quite a few years a chance to take the next step in leadership,” said Jeff Jamrog, assistant athletic director for Husker football. “And also gave some young kids in our program, for example, like Imani Cross, a chance to be in a leadership role those two days. Things like this, it brings your team closer together.”

It wasn't just about seeing who could lead. Just as importantly, who can follow?

There was one test where a group leader was pedaling on a stationary bike. He had to make sure he was keeping the bike at 100 RPM all while keeping charge of the challenges everyone else in the group was taking on. He had to see that everyone was rotating properly, yelling out who had to switch to a new challenge and when.

Even if the leadership was sound, it meant nothing if those around him didn't listen. Communicating was just as critical as physical prowess.

“I think as a football team it’s going to help us come gameday, to keep our head on straight, and when things start going bad, just staying together and picking it back up," said junior cornerback Josh Mitchell in a YouTube video put out by the Husker athletic department about the experience.

How does a player respond when put in an uncomfortable situation?

It is the question at the center of why the Huskers have taken part in The Program's challenges the past two years.

“It’s easy to be a great leader and teammate when it’s 70 degrees out and sunny,” Jamrog said. “But what’s going to happen when it hits the fan? And that’s where (Kapitulik) talks about being that much better. If every guy on our team can be that much better, all our coaches and staff can be that much better, you have a chance to have great success.”

Jamrog said those in the Husker program started considering using The Program last year after a call from former Nebraska assistant Mike Ekeler, who said it was worth looking into.

Nebraska officials researched it. They were impressed. Among other things, they found that Chip Kelly was using The Program at Oregon.

So Nebraska literally jumped all into Kapitulik’s program a year ago. That's when Kapitulik — a former infantry officer and special operations officer with 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Marine Division — took the Huskers to the Devaney Sports Center pool for a set of demanding challenges.

Many Nebraska players would point to that experience as being key in molding mental toughness during a six-game run to the Big Ten Championship Game last year.

It certainly seemed a stepping-stone moment for wide receiver Kenny Bell. He was put in charge of leading a group of teammates across the pool in a straight line. If everything wasn’t conducted in the specified order, the group had to start over.

Everyone else who had ever done the drill had put himself in the front of the group while leading. Bell put himself at the back of the line. The leaders of The Program were impressed by the innovative approach in such circumstances. So was wide receivers coach Rich Fisher.

"I think if you talk to Kenny, just that whole process for those two days was really life-changing for him in a lot of ways, in terms of him feeling confident in who he is as a person, in terms of him feeling confident in what a leader is," Fisher said last fall.

Such examples are why Husker coaches are putting such stock in The Program and those who run it.

Kapitulik was even invited to give the pregame speech before the Michigan game last fall. After Nebraska's 23-9 win, he was presented a game ball. And there wasn't much hesitation to bring he and his training techniques back to Lincoln again this spring.

While Jamrog believes the Huskers "took a step" during those two intense days of training, he knows the days that follow will tell the tale.

"Are guys going to continue to do those types of things?" Jamrog said. "Being a good leader? Being a good teammate?"

If nothing else, Kapitulik and his crew left Lincoln with some encouraging words to coaches.

They said there was a noticeable difference from the year before.

“They were impressed with our guys, just how they battled and our mind-set," Jamrog said. "It was great for them to see how guys were a year ago to now. How guys led a year ago to now was night and day."

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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