No vacation for Hoosiers' defensive tandem

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Given the year-round nature of college football, most players use the rare breaks in their calendar to relax and recharge.

Indiana teammates Matt Mayberry and Jammie Kirlew did just the opposite this winter.

Soon after the team completed a 3-9 season, Indiana adjourned for winter break, and players went their separate ways. Kirlew, a native of Orlando, Fla., didn't want to make the long trip home. So Mayberry made him an offer that most college students would definitely refuse.

Come to the sub-zero Chicago suburbs in December and train. Work out six days a week, sometimes twice a day, for the entire winter recess. Fun and sun? Not happening. This is work.

Kirlew said yes.

He stayed with Mayberry and his family in their Darien, Ill., home and spent most of the "break" working out at Xtreme Speed, a training facility in Plainfield, Ill., owned by former Iowa star wide receiver Kevin Kasper.

"A lot of guys go to Cancun and hang out, drink margaritas and have fun," said Kasper, who has played for six NFL teams, most recently the Cleveland Browns. "Their fun was to get better and be prepared for football season."

Mayberry's offseason training regimen is legendary among Hoosiers fans (particularly those who read this blog). The senior linebacker has worked for several years with Xtreme Speed and Kasper, who also trained former Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski for the NFL combine.

Kirlew, a senior defensive end who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors with 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in 2008, jumped at the chance to join Mayberry and improve his game for 2009 and beyond.

"He's an outstanding guy," Kasper said of Kirlew. "He works his butt off. Those two together, they really complement each other and push each other."

The rare moments when Mayberry and Kirlew weren't at the gym also provided motivation.

"We sat at home and watched the Rose Bowl, watched all the other Big Ten teams [in bowl games] and rooted for them," Mayberry said. "But also it was an inner self-check, too, knowing that we were at home and had a bad season.

"We had to really do something about it."

Kirlew ended up missing spring practice following sports hernia surgery, but Mayberry has turned in a solid spring. After playing last fall at 240 pounds, Mayberry added weight and now checks in between 246-250.

The extra bulk hasn't cost Mayberry his speed, and it helps him transition to becoming a more powerful middle linebacker.

"The whole offseason I've been watching a lot of film of great linebackers," said Mayberry, who led Indiana with 89 tackles last fall. "I've really changed my game. I'm coming downhill a lot more and really being more physical. Before, I used my speed a lot more, more of a finesse linebacker."

A finesse linebacker? Is there such a thing? Kind of sounds like hard-nosed kicker or svelte nose tackle.

"I don't think there really is," Mayberry said, laughing. "All the good ones are hard-nosed and really coming after you. Before, I would use my speed to run around you, but now I'm just running through people."

Mayberry had his moments last fall, recording double-digit tackle performances in the final four games of the season and matching a school record with four sacks against Central Michigan. But there haven't been enough 'wow' games for the leader of a Hoosiers defense that ranked last in the Big Ten in both scoring (35.2 ppg) and yards allowed (432.2 ypg) last fall.

He expects that to change this fall.

"Matt's had a very, very good offseason," Hoosiers head coach Bill Lynch said. "He's a big, strong guy, runs very well, and he really plays like a Mike linebacker now. He was a tailback in high school that we played as an outside linebacker when he came and moved him inside a year ago.

"So each year, we've played him at a different spot. This will be his second year a row playing the [middle], and it's a great fit for him."

Mayberry admits he's not the most vocal player, but along with Hoosiers defensive end and fellow introvert Greg Middleton, he has spoken up more this spring. Injuries ravaged Indiana's defense last season, but Mayberry no longer wants to hear it used as an excuse.

"I know that this is my defense and we want to do big things," he said.

Kasper expects nothing less.

"I'm looking forward to watching them next year," he said, "except when they play Iowa."