Teams from all over the nation are firing up their spring practices within the next few weeks and kicking off their on-the-field preperation for the 2012 season. Sure, they've already hit their winter conditioning hard to start their championship push, but now, when the pads go on, comes the hard work to crack a depth chart and put a team together that can be successful in the fall.
Being the fine group of folks that we are here at Crystal Ball Run, we're not only going to do quick capsules on some of the nation's more intriguing spring situations. We've also put together this Spring Ball FAQ for folks. Get some quick education about the process, how and why it is important and what actually goes on when your teams take the field for this spring semester work.
How many practices does the NCAA allow?
Fifteen. That's it. You get 15 days of on-the-field work. Space them out as you see fit. Most spring breaks fall somewhere in the spring schedule, so be conscious of how your team works around the week off from everything.
How long are they?
It's a normal practice so about an hour and a half to two hours on average. Teams flex, do position-specific drills, then go through the well-worn paces of 9-on-7 run drills, one-on-one pass drills, 7-on-7 pass drills, man-on-man rush drills, special teams period and wrap it all up with the bow that is team period.
How often do teams go full pads?
Most of the spring practices are full pads. Unlike in-season practices, where a lot of teams go shorts and shoulder pads as the coaches look to fine tune a gameplan, the spring is about competition. While everything isn't live (tackle to the ground), the full pads are there because, aside from 7-on-7 and one-on-ones, every period can be live.
How much contact?
A lot. Competition on the football field means hitting. Thud tempo is the standard for most non-scrimmage periods in spring. Sure, you may have a walk-thru before you flex in order to get through a concept or work through something players struggle with. But once practice starts, you're making fits and running to contact. Wrap up; don't take them to the ground. Then, of course, you have your scrimmages and live periods, which brings us to...
Will teams scrimmage? How many times?
Yes. Depends on the definition. There are scrimmage tempo periods and actual scrimmages. Three full scrimmages get done during spring where teams have what amounts to a dress rehearsal of a game framed out how the coaches see fit. This includes the increasingly popular spring game. However, those three scrimmages are not the only time players are out there tackling. 9-on-7 periods go live in the spring from time to time. Team periods go live for 10- and 15-play sets as players compete 1s vs. 1s, 2s vs. 2s and 3s vs. 3s.
One thing a lot of coaches do are live situations to end practice on a high note where there is a winner and a loser. Whether it is two-minute drill or goalline or a drive in the green zone with clock time given, players are tackling and either the offense succeeds by scoring or the defense holds and one unit walks away with a W.
Is it all on-field work, or are there film sessions and meetings, too?
The 15 practices are the somewhat fun part of spring, but the meetings and film are the true teaching portions of spring ball. Film is why most football players don't watch the game in the same manner as fans. We're talking position groups in their meeting room watching practice step by step for each position, rep by rep for each player in the room. It is not about following the ball, it is about "Why did you step with that foot first?" and "What made you look over there?" and "Why did you use the outside hand on the reroute?" and "Do you not see that safety rolling into the box on the snap?"
Film is where you find out what you did wrong and what your teammates did wrong. Then, you figure out why and how to not do it again. Without the film and the meetings, it is darn near impossible to actually get better.
Find the breakdown. Diagnose the problem. Correct the problem on the field the next day.
Oh, and meetings. Install meetings. This is the most mentally daunting task, especially if the scheme is new. Each day you get a new installation packet for a set. On offense, we're talking personnel groupings or a few formations. On defense, we're talking a front and coverage scheme or blitz with all of the checks. You get the packet, you watch film of how it is supposed to look, your coach tweaks it to your team's needs and then in practice you walk through it a few times before you're out there running full speed with the information you just got put into your notebook.
Do coaches focuses more on technique/skills or schemes?
Depends on the coach, team needs and players involved. For a head coach with his scheme well-installed, he can focus more on tweaks and fine-tuning the running of the system. A new head coach has to find a way to get his new players to work his scheme in a functioning manner. An established coach can get a lot of work out of his older guys, while the younger players take mental reps and then get in to mimic the plays they've already seen. A new coach has to go slower and make sure players understand what they're being asked to do.
Team needs and individual players play a huge role in this as well. If a coach's team struggled in certain aspects last season, the coach must address those from a developmental standpoint. When teams lose oodles of seniors or starters, then coaches have to zero in on getting their players ready to do the things that are asked of them.
From an individual player standpoint, there are a couple of different situations. Changing positions means focusing on not just fitting into the scheme, but teaching technique to the green player. Safeties moving to linebacker must learn about playing in the box, shedding blocks, sifting through the wash, faster reaction instead of slow playing the backside A in addition to lining up correctly and learning responsibilities. New starters, especially those forced into leadership roles like Mike linebacker, center or quarterback, get focused technique work while they face the onslaught of responsibility that comes from making calls and adjustments.
Another major focus of coaches in scheme work and developmental growth is competition – Oklahoma drills, ram drills. Battles that don't necessarily work technique, but do foster a sense of competition within the players and draw out the fire in the young men is another big focus of coaches during the spring.
Do star players usually sit out?
Not unless they've had some sort of offseason surgery. As we said, spring is about competition, and those guys have to compete to remain atop the food chain at their positions. Most football players aren't really about deferring to other guys, even if the star player is clearly better. Any chance to climb the depth chart is taken.
That said, players who have a firm stranglehold on their starting spots are afforded a little time off; not because they don't need the work, but because coaches trust them, and in college football, growing depth is critical. Coaches have been known to run their elite 1s half time or give them a rest in practice in order to get other players some work with the 1s. Pull your All-American right guard out in order to get that redshirt freshman some work with the starting unit so that he can contribute in the fall. Sit your all-conference safety out during a team period so that the junior behind him can be a viable subsititution option should disaster strike.
Are there any positions where spring ball tends to be more important?
Obviously quarterback is the easy answer here. Getting a kid acclimated to throwing to the receivers, making calls at the line of scrimmage and getting in sync with his offensive line is huge. But those groups, receivers and line, also need the spring to get used to one another. Offensive line, linebackers and secondary are probably the groups that benefit the most from a solid spring. Unlike a quarterback or a running back, which are largely one-man shows relying on others to increase their production, these three groups are truly units. They have to function as one, or they don't work.
Five men on the line, and if one breaks down, that's a tackle for a loss or a sack. Three- or four-man linebacking groups, and if one goes left when the others go right, that's a seam for a big play. Four or five guys in the secondary, and if one guy is playing three while the others play four, that's a touchdown. As an offense or a defense, all 11 guys must be on the same page. But these smaller units within the group have to work together flawlessly, or very bad things happen on the field.
Are there really that many opportunities for players to stand out or make a move in a position battle?
Yes and no. In theory, every coach wants to start with a relatively clean slate and get his best 11 players on the field in any given situation. However, coaches are not without flaws and jaundiced eyes. If a coach is not a big fan of a player – maybe he didn't recruit the kid, doesn't like the player's off-the-field antics or is not a fan of his style of play – then that player has a truly uphill battle to make depth chart moves stick into fall.
In general, though, you will see that depth chart fluidity is a real thing. A wide receiver that comes out, catches everything, runs the right routes the right way, blocks not awfully and makes things happen on the field will earn his way into the rotation. From there, the sky is the limit once fall camp starts. Same for other positions that see a player continue to show up against his teammates.
Hope this helps and we'll be tracking all of your spring ball action here at CBR, be sure to shoot us tweets with other questions @CrystalBallRun!