HUNTINGTON — Four hundred and twenty-five pounds of weight clanked back down onto the squat rack, and Eli Neal promptly took off his weightlifting belt and tossed it back in the bin with the others.
At 9:30 a.m. on a Monday, the Marshall football linebacker joined his teammates for an intense workout as the second week of the Fourth Quarter Program began for the football team.
It wasn’t Neal’s first set of lifts, or last, as there were still 30 minutes to go in the morning workout. But his intensity never dropped, nor did that of Ben Ashford, Marshall’s director of sports performance.
“We’re trying to get the guys mentally and physically fatigued and still demand they execute to near-perfection,” Ashford said. “Really, this is the most important thing I do as a strength coach, because this sets the tone for how we’re going to be the rest of the year.
In layman’s terms, the Fourth Quarter Program is a ton of reps, a ton of sets, a lot of volume at an extreme intensity, with an expectation of being as close to perfect as possible throughout.
“It’s quite frankly the most fun I have all year long, because it tells you what the guys are all about,” Ashford added.
Leading into spring football practice, which begins March 24, the team will lift three times per week and run four times, with two days each of linear and change-of-direction drills.
“This is the true meat and potatoes of where we shape the 2023 team. Right now is about the most important time of the year,” Ashford said. “This month of training prior to spring ball is really about building up their bodies, building up the mentality of what it’s going to take to finish the season strong, developing the character that we need to be able to finish the season.”
Ashford is entering his third season with the Herd after coming on board with coach Charles Huff ahead of the 2021 season. Both have a history that ties them back to Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide, where the Fourth Quarter Program got its start.
Ashford believes he’s helped the Herd take the intensity to another level. He’s vowed to lead the hardest-working program in the country, a statement he stands by and that has been backed up by players in the past.
“The difference is, and what I hear a lot of from guys that have transferred in from SEC programs or bigger programs is, ‘It wasn’t this hard,’” Ashford said.
“That’s a validated testament to what we do. I was trained at the University of Alabama, the originator of the Fourth Quarter Program with coach Saban. We take a lot of pride in that we’re going to take it up a notch from what you think you’ve been doing.”
Take it from offensive lineman Trent Holler, who transferred to Marshall from East Carolina before last season.
“This place works hard for real. I had about a month where I had to get used to everything, but it’s gotten me in the right shape and everybody doing the right things,” Holler said, recalling his first offseason workouts at Marshall after transferring. “The workload is a lot more heavy. Obviously everybody almost does the same variety of things, but this has more offseason strength, more stuff going on.”
If there’s one thing consistent about the Herd’s offseason workouts, it’s that Ashford, more widely referred to as “BA,” is going to be wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a whistle around his neck, bringing the highest level of energy possible to get the most out of the players at all times.
“He wakes up at 4 in the morning with same energy he goes to sleep with every day,” Neal said. “To put that in, day in and day out, and it’s not fake or a façade, having that in the weight room is contagious.”
For someone like Ethan Driskell, who has been with the program since 2018 and worked under other strength and condition staffs, there’s something different about what BA brings to the table.
“With all due respect to the old staff, because they were great, BA brings a different type of fire to this program,” Driskell said. “He and coach Huff, the swagger, the confidence they have in us is all because of the work we put in in the offseason.”
Their work in the coming weeks, and through spring practice, will help set the tone for the rest of the offseason while establishing a team identity before they take the field for the first regular season game in September.
“You win games right now,” lineman Logan Osburn said. “Some people think you win games in August preparing, but you identify your identity and culture in winter workouts. How tough you’re going to be, how determined you’re going to be, you do that right now.”