Something that used to be a rare occurrence is now becoming quite commonplace on the collegiate landscape. Kids are enrolling early, skipping the back half of their senior year of high school, eschewing prom, spring break and senior week, in favor of college courses and a head-start on their football career.
Kudos for them. They work hard, graduate early and position themselves for success. This benefits both schools and the players in a tremendous way, both on and off the field.
The cost-benefit these kids are making must be noted. They are giving up the familiarity of the high school life, moving away from home and looking to hit the ground early. It's hard work instead of the "easy street" that the back half of the senior year is supposed to be.
Off the field, the clear big push to get kids in early benefits the school from a numbers standpoint. Those kids that come in at the midpoint don't count against your total class numbers when they take vacated scholarships. By sliding them in, you can technically stay below the 25 signees limit while actually putting more than 25 into a class.
In keeping in the off-the-field vein, for the guys coming in early, it gives them a chance to acclimate. Personally, this is not as big a sell as some folks believe it to be. After all, the bulk of the players get to college in the summer and start taking class before the fall "We're all freshmen" rush. However, it must be noted that the early enrollees do get pushed into the fire a bit earlier, and that's a plus when it comes to figuring out college.
On the field, there is no real debate as to the benefits, both for the schools and the kids. Honestly, the two are so intertwined it is tough to see where only the school benefits in comparison to where the players gain.
First and foremost, the bodies get better. It's not just lifting weights with the team, it's the entire experience from nutrition, lifting, stretching and conditioning. Working with a big-time strength and conditioning coach pushes most kids far beyond anything that their high school lifting coach could come up with. Throw in a proper diet, eating training table and loading up on food, and you've got a perfect storm for great results and big weight gains.
That helps the player's body get ready for spring ball and the hits that come with a more physical college game. It also helps the team as they have real-life collegiate bodies to work with.
Working in the strength and conditioning program also helps these kids establish themselves as team members. We talked about winter conditioning here at Your Best 11. That is the first moment in the early enrollee's young career where teammates are looking to find out if they can count on the new guy.
Players do not just walk into the locker room and instantly garner trust. That camaraderie and that trust that you have to have in your teammates gets built up over time. Prove that they can rely on you. Prove that you can pull your own weight. Prove that you won't cost them at critical moments.
And yes, this is in the on-the-field section, because that trust and camaraderie manifests itself on the field—rolling into spring football with the twos or threes and the junior who is busting his ass to get playing time can trust you to do your job so that he does not look bad.
Which brings us to spring football. Outside of the huge benefit that comes through trust, spring football is the big sell for early enrollment. In spring, everyone is doing install. Everyone is back to base plays and base packages. Everyone is working basics in an effort to shore up the foundation on which they are looking to build their season's effort.
For the early enrollee, that means everything gets broken down into small, digestible chunks. Guys get the playbook in sections. You learn a couple things in the filmroom first. Do some chalk talk with the coaches, prove that you can conceptually understand what's being asked of you. Then, you get to go out on the field and put the theoretical knowledge into practice.
Spring is absolutely great for teaching. Small chunks, but players also get more face time with coaches. The ranks are thin, thanks to graduation, NFL draft entrants, transfers and the like. Fewer players in the meeting rooms means more time to be spent with each player.
With spring, the coaches are also not technically prepping for a coming game. Sure, they take time to work packages, but ultimately they are trying to polish up what they have. Spring is about establishing the root system that every week-to-week, opponent-specific tweak sprouts from.
Some folks see spring as only 15 practices—how much can you truly learn? The truth is that you get so much more time in spring that you can learn a lot. Not just from a reps standpoint, but from a film-room side of things. You have the time to watch every rep of every drill for every player in the spring. That's a lot of teachable moments. A lot mental reps and notes to remind the early enrollees just what they need to improve upon for their next practice in a day or two.
Spring's the big sell, and that gets the players headed into summer, where they will be reunited with their whole incoming class for conditioning, lifting and fall camp.
In real terms, a team like Georgia (that got 13 kids in early, is working to develop players and get them ready to help) is in a good spot. For their rivals, the Florida Gators, not the same numbers, but guys are in early at positions where they can offer some early playing time. Running back Kelvin Taylor and linebackers like Alex Anzalone, Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin will use spring to learn but also try to push their way up the depth chart.
Early enrolles, thanks largely to winter conditioning and spring football, definitely have a leg up on their signing classmates. Just having the advantage does not guarantee success. Players certainly have to manage their edge well for it to work out. We'll see if the most recent crop of early enrollees can turn skipping the end of high school into early playing time come fall.