• Virginia Tech football players start their 6 a.m. workouts the first day after spring break
  • The six sessions get them ready for spring practice
  • Mike Gentry has overseen the workouts for 23 years

Clutching at the bottom of his shorts, Ryan Williams opens his mouth and utters the guttural sound that nearly all of his Virginia Tech teammates express at some point in this pre-dawn extravaganza of pain.

"Ahhhhhh, grrrrrrr."

His contorted face, accented by a long string of spit dangling from his bottom lip, tells you everything you need to know about Virginia Tech's 6 a.m. winter conditioning drills.

This stuff isn't fun.

But it's an essential rite of passage for football players across the country as they prepare for spring football practices.

With a wink and nod, they're called "voluntary" workouts, but the only thing you're volunteering to do if you don't participate in the drills is stand on the sideline when the real season begins.

The drills are referred to by some coaches as body-builders. Others called the drills team-builders.

For Virginia Tech assistant athletic director for athletic performance Mike Gentry — who oversees these hour-long, gut-check workouts three days a week for two weeks leading up to the spring practice — it's a team thing.

Oh, and if 6 a.m. sprints, fundamental drills, calisthenics, pushups, situps, up-downs, ladder drills, agility drills and change-of-direction drills aren't enough to provide a reality check, the fact that the first workout at Virginia Tech traditionally starts the day after spring break ends should do it.

"That's a tough welcome-back from spring break," said Gentry, who has put Virginia Tech's football players through these workouts for 23 years.

"Almost every single year the first session is not very good because the guys have to re-acclimate to the drills. They have to learn the pace of the exercises and the pace of the workout. It gives you some indication of the leadership of the team. As much as possible, we're being positive coaches out there. We're encouraging those guys. I think we've got a positive approach to it, and I think the guys pick up on that."

There's a reason Gentry's 6 a.m. routine hasn't changed much over the years.

It works.

It's the product of years of information and observation he has culled from his involvement in this field of study.

Yes, as it turns out, strength and conditioning is a study-oriented profession. Gentry has carried the title "Dr." in front of his name since 1999, when he received his doctorate in curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis in motor behavior, from Virginia Tech. He also has a bachelor's degree in physical education from Western Carolina and a master's from North Carolina.

He started to formulate his ideas on the strength and conditioning aspects of college athletics at UNC in '80, where he worked as a graduate assistant under former strength and conditioning coach Charles Waddell, who is now an associate athletic director at South Carolina.

From there, Gentry went on to become the head strength and conditioning coach at East Carolina. Ed Emory, who was the football coach at ECU from '80-84, liked the idea of getting his players up before dawn to workout together as a team. While some teams go through these pre-spring practice workouts in the afternoon, Gentry has stuck with the concept of early morning workouts ever since his days at ECU.