BLOOMINGTON – 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.
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.”