While full contact scrimmaging during spring and fall practice is a common occurrence—for at least one team, it has been somewhat of a luxury—the end results can be devastating.
Instead of running through the tunnels in front of tens of thousands of fans packed into a stadium on an early fall Saturday, the wounded warriors stand on the sidelines in warm-ups, propped up by crutches.
For them, football will have to wait another year.
Injuries are part of football, but there's something about getting hurt in a practice that seems so unfair—whether a teammate just hit a player too hard or a running back tweaked his knee trying to cut against the grain—that injury didn't occur in action. It's similar to a soldier getting wounded in action versus a soldier falling down and breaking his leg while running next to the fence line in Gitmo—one injury gets you a medal, the other a few "get well soon" comments from your unit.
Coaches take precautions to safeguard their most valuable commodity, like the quarterback, by plastering a red no contact vest on his jersey. Pressure him, touch him for a recorded practice tackle, that's fine—but for crying out loud, don't hit him.
We need him.
Is tackling in spring practice a good idea? There are two schools of thought on the subject and both have merits.
In recreational sports, participants have a higher degree of risk of injury when they are tired. On any ski slope across the country, you'll see its ski patrol become more active toward the end of the day. According to multiple reports, including one from USA Today, accidents on the slope usually occur late in the day because skiers are more fatigued.
Skiing has nothing in common with football, but there is a reason for comparison—in spring practice, football players have been out of action for several months and may not be in the best of shape. The fatigue factor may kick in and thus, there is a higher risk of injury.
Adding to the risk of injury is that some new players may be competing for a spot on the depth chart. Nothing impresses coaches more than that incoming freshman who makes an extra effort trying to catch a pass, but with that effort comes risk—landing awkwardly or getting hit high can take him out of the practice or beyond.
But it's not just injury that is a risk during spring practice contact—that contact also addresses fundamentals by correcting bad techniques. Like tackling.
In 2010, USC safety Jawanza Starling didn't know how to properly tackle. The fact that USC didn't tackle during practice because of depth issues at key defensive positions didn't give Starling opportunities to hone his tackling skills. More from ESPN:
You’d think that, of all people, Starling would know how to tackle. He went to Lincoln High in Tallahassee, Fla., where defensive backs are churned out across the SEC every year, it seems. Heck, even USC signed a player in the class above him: cornerback T.J. Bryant.
But he didn’t learn the right way to tackle at Lincoln.
“In high school, I was one of the biggest players, so I never really had form tackling, it was more like just throwing my shoulder and my body in there and they would fall,” Starling said. “But it’s college now. There are a lot more better athletes and it just takes an extra effort to get in the right position, get your feet and drive your hips and wrap up and then bring them down.”
After one full week of regular season football in 2010, USC's defense was ranked dead least in the then-Pac-10, giving up 459 pass yards to Hawai'i. But according to Los Angeles Times columnist Gary Klein, head coach Lane Kiffin saw a bright side to minimal contact in practice:
"I like when we look at our injury report going into this week and see almost all of our front-line guys will be available," he said.
As Kiffin pointed out way back then, a healthy body count is more important because there has to be bodies available to play in a game, especially since injuries are part of the game—without depth, a starter's injury can cost a team a game.
Then again, how important is a healthy body on the field when tailbacks are regularly streaking past that healthy body and his flailing arms?
Tackle football is, well...tackle football. In order to be good at it, you have to practice it, and playing flag football rules in a violent sport that sees tremendous collisions is not always conducive to good end results.
In a no contact practice, a player that is in good position to make a tackle generally will get a whistle blown to signify the end of the play—he got the "tackle." But in live play where tackling occurs, those assumed tackles don't always have the same results.
Being in position doesn't necessarily mean that a linebacker, for example, can stop a ball carrier. How the linebacker hits the ball carrier, what angle he takes to hit the ball carrier and how he finishes the tackle are important aspects to tackling.
A big hit will elicit loud cheers from fans, but a ball carrier bouncing off of that hit and scampering down the sidelines will not. The art of wrapping up cannot be taught by watching film—it has to be practiced over and over again against the team's best running backs, tight ends and receivers.
If a team goes through practices without tackling, an ominous statistic may pop up during the regular season as well: penalties. USC's 2010 season was rife with missed tackles, but it was also rife with penalties—the Trojans were ranked eighth in their conference in penalties and 99th nationally.
That's not a coincidence.
Penalties are a result of lack of discipline and defensive penalties, for the most part, are called on players who resort to fouling to stop a particular offensive play. Pass interference and face mask fouls are the most common frustration fouls, while late hits and targeting a defenseless player are the more egregious personal fouls committed.
Tackling in practice can reduce "frustration fouls" later on in the season—there is some satisfaction in hammering a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. It's akin to a matador and a bull facing each other in a bull fighting arena.
The matador teases that bull with a red cape—inviting it to charge—but the bull's charge usually ends to no avail as the cape is pulled away and the bull is faced with nothing but empty space. If the frustrated bull gets a clean shot at the matador, however, it's not going to be pretty.
In practice, the ball carrier is the matador and the defensive players are the bulls—if you don't allow those bulls to hit the matador, that pent up frustration may appear in the form of late hits or cheap shots later on in the season. Sometimes, you have to let the bull win.
If linebackers get a regular opportunity to bring down ball carriers in practice scrimmages, then a game day experience shouldn't feel that different to him if the scout team does its job—he gets his chances to get some good pops in. But a linebacker who has had minimal contact throughout practice may have a different experience on game day. He may miss some tackles—again, due to lack of practice—but when he gets the chance to make a big hit, he may take it to a higher level and draw a flag.
But it's not just the defense that needs contact to improve in practice—the offense needs to be hit as well. Skilled players need to learn how to fight off defenders as well as maintain possession of the ball during contact. A 5-star freshman running back who's never been hit by an All-American defensive end may have a ball security issue that never presented itself during practice simply because he never was hit.
Finally, full contact practices are a way for the team to bond—respect can be increased greatly. Many highly-touted freshman may have been the BMOC at his high school, but how good was his team's competition at the high school level? The competition level in Division 1 football, especially among BCS teams, is the ten-fold compared to the high school level. That freshman center's ego will be altered the minute he gets pancaked by a senior defensive lineman.
Welcome to big boy football, son. Please leave your ego at the front door.
Spring practice tackling for head coaches can be a conundrum. Do you risk injury by tackling in scrimmages and thereby improving your team's fundamentals but possibly reduce your depth at positions?
Or do you limit contact and keep your team healthy and hope that full contact in fall practices addresses and corrects the fundamentals?
Does it matter when a team has contact practices? A serious injury in the spring could still see a player rehab by the time the regular season begins—an injury in fall practice may wipe out a player's entire season.
These are the questions some coaches will face as spring practice gets underway, and the answers will probably be obvious some time in mid-October when the BCS rankings are first released.