Hoosier DTs threw bales, counted pushups to prepare for Week 1 win

Sent home to Kansas during the pandemic, Indiana defensive tackle Demarcus Elliott’s return to Big Ten football started at the base of an unassuming but excruciating obstacle.

It’s called the “Wal-Mart Hill” in Garden City, a wide and steep stretch of dried-out grass and weeds on one side of the supercenter. The high school is just about a mile down the road, but this is where the Buffaloes’ summer conditioning culminated each year, usually at 5 or 6 in the morning, busting up a hill that would impress Sisyphus.

“We wanted to make sure, when he got back into the college setting, his feet, his motor, his stamina, they were ready to go,” said Dominick Dingle, formerly Elliott’s defensive coordinator at Garden City. He reached out to the Hoosier lineman and a couple of other local athletes in late April, just to see if they wanted to work out.

“Like a lot of kids, they were just hanging out during the quarantine. We wanted to make sure, when things cranked back up, he was ready to rock and roll.”

Nearly four months later, Elliott found himself back in the trenches, lined up against Penn State’s veteran line. The 311-pounder from Garden City more than held his ground, helping eat up blocks so IU’s linebackers could dart into the backfield for tackles.

Before Elliott could eat up blocks, he had to work his way up the Wal-Mart Hill. Dingle’s workouts then moved to the high school field, but Elliott’s day wouldn’t end with three-cone drills or pushing a sled. He worked afternoons at a friend’s alfalfa farm.

He found hay bales to toss around.

Hard labors seem to have benefitted Elliott the most. Essentially passed over by in-state schools like Kansas State and Kansas, Elliott played his freshman season at Garden City Community College, toiling in a cramped weight room. He was a late add to IU’s 2019 recruiting class, but Elliott rose up the depth chart with his nonstop motor, becoming an honorable mention All-Big Ten player.

The hope was for the rising junior to get a full offseason in IU’s strength program, along with another young nose tackle, rising sophomore Sio Nofoagatoto’a. But in the spring, the Hoosiers’ biggest hosses didn’t have access to weights of any kind. They each had to find ways to bridge the gap, as Elliott did with Dingle.

And with those bales of hay.

“It’s long, taxing, because of the heat and the sun,” Elliott said. “I don’t know how much they weigh, I heard 120 pounds. But I heard a whole bunch of different stories. You really feel it. I don’t know why it feels heavier than some of the weights (at IU), but it definitely does.”

Whatever the formula, IU’s defense didn’t suffer at the point of attack versus then-No. 8 Penn State last weekend. Elliott held his ground, as did Nofoagatoto’a.

Nofoagatoto’a, who has called New Zealand, American Samoa, and Australia home, returned to Florida with fellow Clearwater Academy International alum DK Bonhomme during the pandemic. They relied on body-weight workouts crafted by strength coach Aaron Wellman to maintain their mass.

Plus, ungodly numbers of pushups.

“It was actually a fun time, because we were doing a team challenge. So randomly, if someone tagged you on Instagram, it was 30 pushups,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “Throughout the day, I had, like, 20 guys tag me. At that time, it was like 200, 300 pushups a day, on top of what we did for the workouts.”

That’s a lot of pushups for a 315-pound human. If a pushup is equivalent to a lift of two-thirds of a person’s bodyweight, which studies have esimated, that means Nofoagatoto’a was doing a 200-pound upperbody lift a couple of hundred times a day.

Maintaining their strength in Kansas and Florida, respectively, IU’s nose guards felt an urgency to build back even more strength once they returned to Bloomington in early June.

Wellman ramped them up for an early September, and then late October, start to the season.

“We knew we had to elevate our focus, because of the small amount of time we had before the season,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “Our team did a great job of just coming in and getting straight to work.”

They were a motivated group, especially coming off of an eight-win season, and especially being just a point or two shy of a ninth victory in the bowl versus Tennessee.

Elliott’s father, James, recalls seeing his son postgame in Jacksonville, repeatedly hearing the words “We had it.”

“I saw a change in him,” James Elliott said. “He saw what it takes to play at that level. Now he wants to get to that first-team All-Big Ten level. I know that because that’s what he told me.”

A homebody, Elliott didn’t do much in Garden City other than play video games and head out the door for workouts. Pursuing that next level put Elliott at the foot of the Wal-Mart Hill. He raced around cones with ex-prep teammates half his size, like Fort Hays State’s David Arteaga and Kansas Wesleyan’s Jasper Partin. Elliott, agile enough to play center for Garden City’s varsity basketball team, never trailed too far behind.

Meanwhile, the former rugby and volleyball player Nofoagatoto’a was checking his Instagram, hitting the floor for 30 more pushups.

“Me and D-Mac, we have a great relationship,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “We came in last year at the same time. We just wanted to come in and, obviously, we had a big hole at the nose guard position for the defense. And we knew that we couldn’t do it individually.

“I don’t think there’s any team as deep at nose guard as us. We can definitely both start. With the rotation, it’s great in our defense.”

In the opener, Elliott and Nofoagatoto’a both appeared fresh and hungry. Not only were IU’s defensive tackles holding their own on the interior, but there were several plays where redshirt freshman C.J. Person, a 291-pounder from Alabama, lined up at d-end in IU’s “heavy” front and clobbered PSU blockers.

On a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, Person plowed PSU left tackle Rasheed Walker down the line of scrimmage and into the turf, opening a lane for linebacker Cam Jones to deck running back Keyvone Lee behind the line. Elliott was also on the pile.

“Penn State was more physical. They came in with a more physical mindset than they were a year ago, and we bowed our neck and knocked them back most of the night,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “We have to do a better job in our pass rush. We let the quarterback (Sean Clifford) off the hook way too much. That’s on me, that’s on Coach Peeps (Kevin Peoples), that’s on the players.

“But from a physicality in the run game (standpoint), I’m very excited about the violence of our defense right now.”

As coaches often say, football games are won in the trenches, and Elliott, Nofoagatoto’a, Person, and the rest of IU’s d-line came ready to play in Week 1. In Week 2, they head to Piscataway to face a remade Rutgers squad, which just rolled over Michigan State.

But it’s in the weeks prior to kickoff that the Hoosier defensive line built its strength and stamina, in the most unusual of circumstances.

At the base of the Wal-Mart Hill. Or on the floor, doing pushups.

“The coaches stressed that during these crazy times  … when it comes to the game, it’s not going to matter what we went through, or how many days we sat out because of COVID,” Nofoagatoto’a said. “We just expected to come out and make plays, and come out with the win.”

23 comments

  1. The DL had a very good game against PSU and gives me hope they can challenge any group in the B1G. I would really like to see coach Wommack let the front play more attacking defense shooting a gap and getting into the backfield. They ended up in the backfield at times and were more disruptive than IU’s DL has been in the past.

    I would say IU now has a B1G defensive line that can match up with some of the best in the B1G. Besides the two NTs Johnson and Person also had very good games and were physical enough to hurt PSU’s OL.

  2. Question football guys. Why was the last couple of minutes in the PSU so successful for the offense? Change in the calls from the OC? Just more creative? Not playing it safe? Whatever it was – impressive.

    1. QB Penix was on target despite pressure and and receivers caught the ball while tightly covered. It is the formula IU needs to keep winning games this season as eventually defense will change and open up the run game.

      1. Maybe Penix does better under pressure? He was either over-thinking or just plain tight on a lot of throws in the first half v. PSU. And couple of the “drops” had way too much mustard on them for short passes. I think he will get a lot better as the season goes on.

  3. IU offense needs to find happy medium towards end of game plus overtime and two point conversion vs rest of most of game. Don’t expect offense to play at as high level they did towards end of game plus two point conversion but play at higher level than they played for most of rest of the game.

      1. We should not be running up the middle when 99 is out there but we continue to do so. With the place kicker we have we need to take more chances inside the 30. Quit having Penix trying to run. There is a lot on this playing calling.

          1. Our OL is really a mess. I knew we would be challenged there, but I thought the tackles would be better. We’re a sieve everywhere.

  4. Nick Sheridan is obviously clueless. Recievers look like Jr. High. Sampson James needs to, at least, rotate with Scott. Sending Scott out for a simple pass in the flat is obviously over his paygrade.

    1. I think the jury is still out there, but it’s a good thing fans aren’t consulted on play calling. Lol

  5. We are lucky that penalties at this point haven’t hurt us. Way too many. Need to clean that up.

  6. FS1 Halftime Commentary:

    Brady Quinn: “I’m tellin’ ya…This Indiana team…? Sleeper team?”

    Rest of FS1 Roundtable Crew: (gigantic eruption of laughter….HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! ).

    Rodney Dangerfield got more respect.

  7. Did I hear Urban Myer right at half time that IU might be the 2nd best team in the east? Wait until tonight’s game before making that call?

      1. Speaking of Michigan, are they ripe for another loss next week? I was hoping they would win this week and look past IU to the following vs Whisky. I think that is how we caught PSU a little. I think they were looking past IU to the OSU game this week.

  8. LASER PEN – IX!

    Any use of ‘Laser Pen-IX’ is strictly prohibited without the written consent of the nicknames creator, H4H.

    Wow…..Where have you been all of our Hoosier lives, Laser Pen-IX?

  9. I have to agree with those who said the play-calling was bad in the first half. Yes, IU dropped four or five passes, but that does not excuse Sheridan continuing to try to run it up the middle against a Rutger’s Defensive line that was standing our linemen up and pushing them backwards. After IU’s second offensive series, those up-the-middle run plays should have stopped.

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