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Aug. 15, 2003
By Jerry Kutz, courtesy of The Osceola
Florida State’s football coaches weren’t sure how to act after the first morning of football practice. In years past, they would gulp down a pitcher of water, strip their sweaty clothes to shower and prepare for the afternoon session of two-a-day practices. But the NCAA changed the rules on them, forcing them to abandon the age-old ritual for a new, safety-conscious schedule.
In years past, freshmen would report three days before the team so that the coaches could teach them the drills, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, work on technique and give them the kind of one-on-one time that homesick-prone boys tend to need. Then the varsity would arrive for a grueling two-a-day schedule in 100-degree heat and 90 percent humidity leading up to game preparation week. This three-week hell period for players, coaches and staff was a rite of passage, an initiation into the football fraternity. Anyone who ever donned a team jersey, whether in pro, college or high school, has vivid memories of two-a-days.
Christmas always comes on Dec. 25, and for some reason I cannot explain, football practice always started on Aug. 15 when I was a boy. To this day, every time I smell fresh-cut grass in the morning, I feel the burn of the Florida sun and of aching thighs. With most high school districts now starting so early, or going to year-round school, two-a-days have gone the way of the 8-track tape. Now there’s a generation gap in the football family.
The initial reaction among ACC head coaches and among FSU’s assistant coaches was what you would expect from a fraternity whose initiation ritual was abolished. They don’t like it. They fear it will prevent the bonding that naturally occurs between players who must pull each other through the adversity of two-a-day drills. They fear it will impede the bonding that occurs between a coach and his players. And, they fear, it won’t be as easy for the leaders to emerge. The bottom line is they really don’t know what will happen. And we all tend to fear the unknown.
The critics argue that there are no more deaths now than there ever have been and that society has not become more concerned about the welfare of athletes, but about the financial liability in a more-litigious society.
Bobby Bowden, who has had chameleon-like ability to adapt to NCAA rules over his 51-year career, sees little downside to this safety-conscious rule change, which requires a five-day acclimatization period of one-a-day practices followed by no multiple session (two-practice or three-practice) days on consecutive days.
“I haven’t seen anything harmful about it. Right now, I kind of like them,” Bowden said. “I think we actually have more time now than we used to have. We used to have three solid weeks to get ready for the game. Now we have five days and three solid weeks. You still have 29 practices. You are just expanding the time period and spreading the practices out.”
The legislation was born from Injury Surveillance Systems, which revealed that football players were four times more likely to suffer time-loss injuries in preseason practices than they were during the season. Studies also showed that the likelihood of heat-related illness (heat prostration) would be reduced if players were allowed the five-day acclimatization period and more time to recover between two-a-day sessions.
The legislation also restricts one-a-day sessions to three hours and practice time on multi-session days to five hours total. There must also be a three-hour recovery period between sessions. During this time, players may not attend team meetings. Critics say the safety-conscious rules may inhibit conditioning and therefore lead to more injuries, which would be opposite of the intended affect.
“You can still condition,” he said. “Like today after practice, we ran them. When we used to be in two-a-days, we would not condition after the morning practice anyway because they could not recover in time for the afternoon practice. So, only after the afternoon practice would we condition. With the heat like it is, I don’t see how kids can carry the additional weight.”
If a kid is out of shape or needs to lose weight, coaches cannot run him in a special session.
“If he wants to run on his own, I think he can. But we can not instruct him to,” Bowden said.
The coaches had to abide by specific rules for the acclimatization week as well. The only gear the players could wear the first two days was helmets. They were allowed to wear helmets and shoulder pads the third and fourth days and full pads the fifth day. Since the fifth day fell on a Sunday, a day Bowden does not like to practice, the Seminoles only went through a limited workout indoors.
Beginning this past Monday, they are staggering two-a-day practices (plus an optional walk through) followed by a single-session day (plus and optional walk through) right up until the first day of class, with Sundays off. After classes start, the Seminoles will go to one-a-day practices the rest of the season.
If FSU is not rained out of any practices (which may not be made up) they could get in 22 practices before the week of preparation for the season opener at North Carolina, or a total of 26 practices before they board the plane for Chapel Hill. But what if the weather does not cooperate and it rains on a multi-session day? The team would have to move the multi-session day to the next day, but would lose a practice because you cannot make it up by having two multi-session days in a row.
I can already hear Bobby Bowden’s call to T.K. Wetherell arguing for the need for a spacious indoor practice facility, if Tallahassee’s torrential rains and late afternoon thunderstorms, which have already cut one practice short, wash away a few more.
“Football has changed so much, maybe these rules changes are the best way to go,” Bowden said in reference to the size of today’s players and the cerebral demands of a more-sophisticated game. “Now, on the days we can only practice once, we have twice as much time to meet with the players and watch film and teach. The assistant coaches like that. They used to say: ‘I don’t have enough time. I didn’t get to cover this because I didn’t have enough time.’ Well, you have the time now.”
While Bowden is largely in support of the safety-conscious legislation, he is concerned about an unintended effect it may have on the incoming freshmen.
“The only thing is I hope we aren’t neglecting our freshmen too much,” Bowden said. “You used to be able to bring them in before the varsity reported, see who was struggling, get a pretty good read on them, pat ’em on the back, hug and kiss ’em and put ’em to bed at night. You could look for homesickness and stuff like that. This way they are intermingled with everybody else and you hope they get the message: “Men, you are not quite ready, but don’t get impatient about it.”
Miscellaneous practice observations
The situation along the defensive line looks better than expected. Not only is Darnell Dockett healthy, he is happy and appears eager to assume a responsible role of leadership. There are young players like Brodrick Bunkley who are eager to listen. And while Jeff Womble is not close to full speed or playing weight, you can still see that he will help this team a few plays at a time.
While watching a pass-rush drill, you notice that the defensive end position has talented players once again. Kevin Emanuel, Chauncey Davis and Eric Moore will make more plays than FSU’s defensive ends have made in recent years. The linebackers are loaded with talent and with pride. I even hear good reports from the defensive back segment where incoming freshman Antonio Cromartie has impressed.
There are new and talented receivers like Chauncey Stovall and Chris Davis that stand out in a talented bunch. And the running back position, featuring a rapidly healing Greg Jones, is loaded.
So where do you look with concern?
I look to offensive line and to quarterback. While Chris Rix and the starting line still have to prove themselves, they are established starters. It’s what’s behind them that concerns the coaches.
Behind Rix is Fabian Walker and Wyatt Sexton. You’d like redshirt freshman Sexton to soak another year and for redshirt junior Walker to step up and compete for playing time with Rix. Walker, who underwent shoulder surgery in January and missed most of spring practice, has not thrown the ball consistently.
He’s making the right throws, but he is not consistent with his accuracy. “He just needs reps, reps, reps,” Bowden said.
The good news is he is getting them.
Depth on the offensive line is what really scares Bowden, and the position of center in particular. While Bowden likes his starter David Castillo, a very bright pre-med major, he knows that Castillo has nagging injuries. Therefore, former walk-on defensive tackle Brian Ross was moved to center. Unfortunately, Ross suffered a broken leg in spring and is not full speed just yet.
“If Ross was healthy I would feel solid,” Bowden said. “Some worry about us having to teach Ross to play center but no, he played it in high school. He is 300 pounds, intelligent and has a great attitude. I just wish he was able to get all the reps.”
John Frady, an impressive incoming freshman is backing Castillo up. “Frady is a good football player; young but very intelligent. Our center nearly has to be our sharpest guy because he is making all those calls,” Bowden said.
While Bowden is concerned, he notes, “there are plenty of teams in the country who are playing with a second-team center who is a freshman.”
Incoming freshman tackle Mario Henderson is also impressive. And redshirt freshmen, like Lucky Lunford, have picked up where they left off last spring.
“We have some of the answers there, but you just cannot afford injuries across that starting five,” Bowden said. “We have depth at receiver, extra running backs, extra corners, everywhere but OL. Do we have people behind them? Yes, but they are totally inexperienced freshmen and redshirt freshmen.”
Adapting to the inevitable change in college football is what makes coaching it and watching it so interesting.