Why Spring College Football Is All About the Individual, Not the Team

Andrew CoppensContributor IApril 17, 2014

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, center, smiles as he watches the team's NCAA college football practice, Monday, Aug, 5, 2013, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
Patric Schneider

How did my team look during Saturday's spring game? Can "Team X" win the conference title based on what we saw during the spring game? Those are just a sampling of questions that fans and pundits are likely to have coming out of spring games across the country every year. 

Then there's the obligatory headline telling you that one school color beat the other school color by some score or another. The reality is, however, that none of that matters; it's all about the individual, even during an 11-on-11 scrimmage in a spring-game setting.

For coaches and players, the results of a spring game (and spring football in general) have very little to do with the team and everything to do with evaluating individual performances. It's the one time of the year where everyone is on the same footing, and there is no opposition to prepare for in a few days time.

There are just 15 opportunities each spring to gain the coaches' attention and show you've got what it takes to be a part of the plan come the fall.  

Charlie Neibergall

Even for a grizzled veteran, like Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz, spring practice is all about evaluationwhether that is on a team or on an individual basis.

"There's not an emphasis, it's not a race, to get ready for any one opponent," said Ferentz about spring practice. "I think it's a chance for pure teaching, and along with that you're always evaluating the team no matter what time of year it is. You have so many players at different levels...It's fun to just have an opportunity to really see everybody, and really not only see them, but see them and watch them and evaluate them and track them over the course of 15 practices. They have the same thing going in fall, but the time to teach and analyze is not there."

Ask yourself if you remember the score of the Texas A&M spring game from 2012. All that really mattered that year was the introduction of one Johnny Manziel to the rest of the world.

To the media, though, all he seemed to be was an afterthought to "expected" starter Jameill Showers. Manziel ended the annual Maroon and White game completing 13-of-27 passes for 154 yards and one touchdown—and it led to all of two lines in the Houston Chronicle's post-spring-game recap

However, to those around the program, Manziel was a quick learner and steady climber all spring long. It was that progression (and a summer arrest of all things) that led to him winning the job over Showers in the fall. The rest, as they say, is history, as Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy that very same season.  

Patric Schneider

Manziel is but one of dozens of players whose spring performances gave them opportunities which those in the general public never saw coming. 

That same year, a walk-on redshirt freshman quarterback at Wisconsin, Joel Stave, surprised everyone with the best performance of any quarterback on the roster in the spring game.

He would go on to take over the starting job at halftime of the third game of the 2012 season, and he would have ended the year as the starter if not for a broken collarbone. He has since started 19 games so far in his career.

While those are just two examples of what a spring evaluation can do for a player’s chance in a program, it is also about finding out who fits the program philosophy the best. 

"Spring time is really to find out, to kind of lay a foundation of what you're going to do offensively and defensively and firmly establish that foundation," said Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini during the Big Ten spring teleconference last week. "Second of all, to really evaluate guys going into summer and into fall camp. So you kind of have an idea going in who's earning those reps coming forth in the fall. You know, where they’re going to fit and what their role is going to be."

"It's not solidified in the spring, but I think it starts being developed in guys showing the ability to take coaches and develop within the program. It kind of gives you a benchmark going in to the fall."

Even established starters see benefits to the spring, both on and off the field. A great example of that is Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, who is changing the culture of the offense of the Gophers with his leadership, according to head coach Jerry Kill, per ESPN Big Ten: 

It's those kind of moments that matter most in springtime. Forget the scores, and forget about how the offense looked or why the offensive line couldn't open up any holes.

Instead, "can this guy lead this group come the fall?" or "does this guy demonstrate an ability to grow every day?" are the questions that should be asked; those are the moments coaches are looking for in these 15 practices. 

For every worrisome event that takes place at a spring game, just remember that it isn't about figuring out how good the team is, but rather it about determining which individuals will step up to help put forth the best possible version of the team come the fall. 


*Andy Coppens is a national college football featured columnist. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Andy on Twitter: @AndyOnCFB