The Orlando Sentinel has got all of the most current start dates for college football's spring season, and the Army Black Knights have already started their drills. For a lot of folks spring ball is some amorphous ideal that culminates in a Spring Game, that no one really knows what to take away from it because each coach uses their own scoring metric.
You hear talk about rising and falling on depth charts. Guys sitting out due to injury. They had a good practice. They had a bad practice. Tempo was up. Intensity was down. Young Player X is coming on strong. Returning Player Y is having trouble with the position change.
A lot of words being kicked around and written up that, ultimately, no one is really sure how to take when they see the updates. Folks, I promise you there is a method to the mayhem that is spring ball.
Some coaches like to go fast, cramming their 15 practices in as soon as possible. Other coaches prefer to stretch it out, give players time to digest the information and recover from drills. Coming out of winter conditioning the players' bodies are primed, they are ready for the rigors, much like after summer running guys are at their peak for fall camp.
Unlike fall camp, which is a grindfest where everyday is a blend of brutal physicality and prep for the season; spring ball is a more spread-out, still physically grueling, period to focus on yourself.
The biggest, most critical aspect of spring is the learning process. Spring is when the coaches truly become teachers. They work technique. They teach skills. They refine the abilities of already successful players and impart knowledge for how to succeed on the guys who still have growing to do.
Everyone is getting reps and an opportunity to improve their standing on the depth chart. Players rise and fall, guys who show well get the chance to work in with the group ahead of them. Threes get to run with twos, twos get to run with ones and if they can make it work they can claw their way into the next group.
These practices where players are looking to hold and gain ground are tough. This is not the in-season two days of thud, one-day shells and another day of walk-thru. This is, at least, full-time thud tempo. Not always tackling to the ground but certainly creating pop with collisions and forming up the opposition.
There is no more scout team. It is merely offense versus defense after individual drills—7-on-7, 9-on-7, 1-on-1's, blitz period and the like are all team versus team, not team versus look. Ones battle it out, twos battle it out and threes fight for time on the field.
And once the horn sounds for the end of practice, the real fun begins. You see, unlike fall camp or even during the season, where you have practice day after day after day, you have gaps in on-field time in the spring. Those "gaps" are not just days off, rather they are the points where the most learning takes place: meetings.
Talk to anyone who played college football and they will tell you, you spend more time in meetings than just about anything else—weight room, perhaps, close second. Spring is the height of the meetings. Every "off day" you have position meetings to review the tape. All of the tape.
That's the beauty of spring. While in-season and in fall camp you watch tape, spring is the only period where you have sufficient time to watch ALL OF THE TAPE. That means every single play that your position group participated in during the last practice. Hell, it actually means every play multiple times so that you can watch the different people at each position on every single play.
Basically, it is countless hours of frame advancing watching of film, with a laser pointer highlighting every wrong step, wrong head turn and any other tiny imperfection that the coach can find. Coaches ask you rhetorical questions, put you on blast in front of your position group and, inside of all of this, they help fix your mistakes.
Because you are watching every single rep in practice, it does not matter if you are a one, a two or a three; you have the chance to mentally work on what the player at your position either did right or what wrong. You get to sort it out in your head. Figure out what you would do differently, what keys you'd read and why the player either succeeded for failed.
Film time is really invaluable, and spring is the only time you really get the opportunity to go over everything, with the coach giving his notes and talking points. Certainly, outside film work is encouraged but getting the feedback on yourself, from your coach, helps make the necessary improvements clear.
To go along with film and teaching, meetings are also where everything gets stripped down to the bare bones. Re-installation of the of base packages let's everyone get on the same page. The early enrollee, the transfer, the freshman who just redshirted and the player looking to replace a starter who graduated all get spoonfed the same basics.
They all learn the same principles, the same keys, the same reads. Some guys pick it up quicker than others, but in the end they are all going through the same installs and thus talking about it becomes easier and makes players get more comfortable with the material. The more comfortable they are, the fewer missed assignments, missed alignments and paralysis by analysis coaches have to cut through to find their best guys.
Which brings us to the final two elements of spring: fighting and the spring game. Personally, I'm a huge fan of both. Spring brings an offense versus defense dynamic where guys are hitting each other, looking to win their individual battles. And as those 15 physical practices wear on, frustration sets in.
Talking straight cash turns into shoving after the play. Eventually the shoving grows into trying to slam guys down and impose your will. Which becomes full-blown fighting at some point. Don't panic, it's OK. That's what happens when guys get their dander up and they are looking to maintain or improve their standing on the team.
As for the spring game, when they hit we'll get more into that specifically, but just know that there is plenty to be learned from the game. Not the stats or the scores, but in watching the individual efforts, techniques of the players. That's where the true value of the spring game lays.
Spring is critical, it is where you start the on-field preparation to build your team. It is about so much more than the 15 practices that teams get. It's about the learning process, competing for a spot and ultimately improving as a ball club. The practices are great, but there is also true meat in the film time that players get with their respective coaches.