Fall camp is a strange beast.
It is part a getting-to-know-each-other event, but not entirely because even the freshmen have been at summer school working out with the team. It is part installation of the basics and working fundamentals, but not entirely because the bulk of the team should have gotten all that down in the spring.
Camp is all about everything at once, and with all of the elements combined, it makes for an extremely unique experience. Seniors, going into fourth and fifth camps, come in ready to work and get better. Freshmen, entering their first camp and prolonged experience with the coaching staff, are there to get up to the speed of the rest of the team.
It's 105 men lining up in the sun, sweating together and getting ready for Week 1.
From an NCAA standpoint, here are the basics:
- Team can only have 29 practices before its first contest
- No consecutive two-a-day practices
- No two-a-days in first five days, also known as the acclimation period
- One-a-day practices can be no longer than three hours in length
- Two-a-day practices can be no longer than five total hours in length
- Walk-through does not count as part of the practice time, following the acclimation period
- Freshman must have six hours of academic orientation
Coaches work within the given parameters to get the maximum amount of work out of their players. In recent years, the number of two-a-day sessions has dwindled. Some schools have opted to keep four or five multiple sessions, while others have elected to get rid of them almost altogether.
Although some folks will argue that missing on two-a-days hurts conditioning, the truth is players today are in better shape than any previous era. These athletes spend all summer on campus, running with the strength staff and doing "voluntary" team activities to stay polished.
With just 105 guys on campus, down from 140 prior to 2003, keeping bodies live and fresh is critical in camp.
That's why coaches tweak the schedule. Even one-a-day sessions, whether in the morning or the afternoon, mean long days for the players who eat breakfast, sit in film sessions, lift weights, eat lunch, practice and get more film in before lights out.
With the two-a-days, players watch less film, but spend more time on the physical parts of the game. Morning practice sessions come after breakfast and some quick film work. Then the players get lunch, watch more film, practice again and then have dinner, and a little film, if the coach desires.
Unlike spring ball, training camp lacks the distractions of class, non-football friends of any gender, going out partying and even days to forget information between practices. It is all football, all the time, as the NCAA removes the 20-hour time restrictions during the preseason camp period,and players usually don't get a day off.
Camp, like spring, is when players get their install packets and coaches start to work on a team's approach to its season. This is why reports of teams running the same plays during a period of a day or two should not alarm fans. That is what install periods are all about: installing specific facets of the offense and defense in a chunk that players digest and use going forward.
In film, the practices get critiqued and corrections get made on the chalkboard. Then during walk-through, coaches make sure players have issues fixed. As camp wears on, the installs become less about getting the facets into the brains of the players, and more about making sure that the players' recall allows coaches to use everything that has been taught.
Defenses start cycling through different fronts, various zone coverages, putting together blitz packages and using different personnel with more fluidity. Offenses work more shifting, motion and multiple sets into each practice session.
As stakes get higher, both sides battle with more intensity. This is where the obligatory camp fights come into play. Much like in spring, this is a time when freshmen prove they are a part of their respective units and veterans start to show how tired they are of battling each other. The fights happen. It is a part of the intense competition, fueled by the heat and tempers of fall.
In addition to just practicing, teams also scrimmage and play simulated games leading up to the season. Scrimmages are when you get your first real look at how players react to extended live drills. Instead of just a session of practice going full competition, scrimmages allow players to truly show what they can and, on many occasions, can't do on the field.
Given the rise in the importance of situational play, many coaches are using scrimmage sessions and practice periods to work on team awareness and understanding of the game. Instead of working all first-down plays, all short-yardage plays or all goal-line plays during specific periods, coaches move the ball and set teams up to compete against one another.
Defenses are tasked with keeping an offense out of the end zone during mock two-minute drills. Offenses are tasked with needing to pick up a first down after starting deep in their own territory. Quarterbacks and receivers have to understand how far to adjust routes and throws to keep drives alive. Linebackers and defensive backs have to understand where the sticks are on a given down and distance.
Going situational, both in scrimmages and in scrimmage-tempo periods of practice, turns up the intensity and helps coaches learn more about players. Do they communicate? Do they understand the scenarios? When the intensity increases, does the player forget his assignments?
Discovering those answers is what camp is all about.
Yet, camp is still so much more than all of those things. It is also about life skills meetings and moving into the dorms. Life skills meetings about compliance, agents, meeting with the local police department, drug policies and such are going on at the same time as camp. Players have a lot of time on their hands, time that coaches and schools fill with helping get them prepared for not just football, but life in general.
That life includes moving into a dorm. For the guys who live off campus, it symbolizes a return to freedom, of sorts. For those who live on campus, it is about figuring out that your alarm clock works and making sure your roommate will look out for you.
Getting that freedom by moving out of the camp dorm, or the hotel, acts as the unofficial end to camp for most teams. Yes, there will be a few more practices for most teams as they reach practice No. 29 just prior to the first game. However, a game on the weekend and classes starting up make the transition from camp to game week feel quite natural.
Camp is a bear. It will drain players physically, mentally and even emotionally, as they work toward getting to game week.
But it is a time when teams are built, players prove they belong, coaches find out who they can use and teams grow together.