How an Incoming Freshman Gets Ready for College Football
Preparing for college is difficult enough for most students, but when you're a college football recruit, there's the added pressure of performing on the field as well as in the classroom.
So how do these young 17 and 18-year-old, fresh-faced youngsters do it? How does a football neophyte transition into the next generation of college football legend?
To help demystify the journey from high school standout to college football megastar, we've put together a brief overview of how an incoming freshman gets ready for his first year playing college football.
High School Standout
Yes, it still starts on the thousands of grassy gridirons across America. For most top recruits, the junior year—and sometimes even sooner—is a key time to attract attention from coaching staffs around the country.
As the body matures, so too should various attributes of a player's game: arm strength for quarterbacks, speed and trucking ability for runners, solid cores for linemen, agility for wide outs and defensive backs.
Of course, the truly great “blue chip” recruits develop in all of these areas.
But sometimes lost in all of the physical preparation is the mental preparation that takes place.
Coaches today don't just want a talented athlete, they want a student of the game. Quarterbacks who can instantly size up a defensive coverage are at a premium, and linebackers than can quickly adapt to shifts, stunts, and other offensive adjustments are a prized commodity.
Oh yeah, let's not forget about the grades, too.
The NCAA, for all of its flaws, does still have some minimum academic standards players must meet. Those who fail, will see their college football dreams vanish before they ever set foot on campus.
The Senior Season
The senior year in high school can be a mixed bag for many college football recruits.
On one hand, there's the ever-present pressure to perform at the highest level possible. Stats are king, and a loaded highlight reel can be the difference between playing for Michigan or Eastern Michigan, Alabama or South Alabama.
But with the increased number of touches, there's always the risk of injury. A top recruit can go from an every down freshman contributor to a FCS or Division II prospect overnight with a torn ACL, broken ankle, or dislocated shoulder.
The student-athlete is also expected to step his game up a notch while continuing to develop not only physically, but in the classroom as well.
Don't forget the all-important ACT or SAT every college-bound kid takes. The minimum score to play college football isn't terribly high, but if you want to attend an institution like Stanford or Michigan, the recruit will need to do more than spell his name correctly.
After the Senior Season
Now comes the real preparation work.
The high school football season ends in November, but that's not when the college-bound players stop.
Every day, before and after school, the nation's top recruits can be found in the weight room or in the gym or on the track, preparing.
As February approaches, and the last coaching visits and phone calls have been made, the all-important signing day approaches.
Once the letter of intent is signed, there's no turning back—a player is locked in to his school of choice.
So now what? What happens between February and August, when fall camp begins?
When a freshman steps onto the field in college for the first time, he'll be facing grown men five years older than him.
These guys are nearing their lifetime physical peak, and have been battle-tested on the college field.
They're bigger, faster, and stronger than almost any freshman can hope to be. So how can the youngster narrow the gap?
It all begins with strength training.
Once the high school football season ends, players typically rest for two or three weeks—until right around Christmas break. Then, it's time to start hitting the weights. Hard.
Many students will work closely with their high school coaches, especially at schools with a history of producing some top FBS talent. The college coaches don't get involved in training a player until the summer rolls around, so it's up to the student himself (and his high school coaches) to make sure he's as ready as possible for next fall.
Lifting four days a week is the norm, and any trainer worth his salt will implement a split routine, alternating between upper and lower body days.
Cleans and snatches are imperative for that explosive burst off the line. Following that with a pair of both chest exercises and shoulder workouts will add the muscle mass needed to compete at the next level.
The upper body day routine will usually conclude with a back and arm workout.
The exact type and duration of each workout will change depending on the position of the player, but the general scheme is the same for all.
Just like it is on lower body days.
Squats, leg-presses, lunges, leg curls, and calf extensions are part of every lower body routine, and strength is important for every football player on the field.
With the modern emphasis on speed, it's important for incoming freshman hoping to make an instant impact to wow their new coaches with bursts of speed once fall camps gets underway.
The biggest difference any freshman notices from high school to college is the quantum leap forward in the speed of the guys coming to tackle you—or run away from your tackles.
In the FBS, everyone is fast. Quarterbacks throw the ball faster. Running backs run faster. Linebackers pursue faster.
In fact, if you remember back to the quickest running back your high school team played against in your senior year, he'll probably be slower than the slowest linebacker you'll see in your freshman year in college.
For the non-athlete, it's hard to imagine that there's a “right” and “wrong” way to run, but there is in fact a great deal of emphasis on running technique.
In order to produce the fastest players around, training staffs have developed ways to maximize an athlete's force on the ground, producing the best acceleration and a higher top speed.
Like tuning an engine, a conditioning coach will be able to tune a football player's running technique to use every ounce of strength gained by all that weight-lifting.
There's also something to be said about repetition. Run, run, and run some more.
Weight sleds will also help add speed, and by the time summer rolls around, the average incoming freshman will be able to run four days a week with near-perfect technique—finally possessing the speed to at least keep up with his new teammates.
Even the strongest, fastest recruit will be passed over if he can't hang on to the football or has a habit of tackling the air.
With all of the strength and speed training that goes into the preparation for a freshman season on campus, it can be easy to forget about the fundamentals.
But remember, we said everything happens faster at the college level. Everything.
Whether it's running routes, hitting blocking assignments, dropping into coverage, or carrying into the gaps, the college game will seem to be running by at light speed compared to high school.
If you just want to focus on being fast and strong, football isn't your sport. Try out for the track and field team.
Football players do not only have to be great athletes, but they have to be good football players, too. Neglecting skills training will put any freshman at a major disadvantage come fall camp.
Most position-specific drills run in high school still apply here. Most high school coaches can set up a recent grad with a set of position drills to run over and over until the collegiate position coaches take over with their list of drills to practice before fall camp.
Quarterbacks should never stop throwing the football. Running backs should always have the football tucked away. Wide receivers should be working on routes and catches. The list goes on and on.
In the end, the only difference between a red shirt and a spot on the depth chart isn't strength and speed. It's skill.
No, we're not talking about cabins and counselors, swimming holes and capture the flag.
Football freshman summer camps are the last, vital step in a high school star's transition into college football player.
The summer camp is really an informal sort of training regiment, not like the training camps high school students attended at local colleges during the days at City High. Freshmen often meet their teammates for the first time, and the focus is mainly on conditioning.
Everything done over the next few months will be solely to prepare for fall camp, where the coaches really get to sink their teeth into the new blood for the first time.
This is also a freshman's first taste of college life. The weight rooms are bigger, and more modern, with the latest equipment and technology around every corner.
Freshmen also typically attend orientation at some point over the summer, not for football, but for school. Yes, we can't forget about the whole college part of college football.
Registering for classes, getting dorm assignments, and all the other typical college preparation work has to be done in addition to the football conditioning work.
And we're not even to fall camp yet!
The Final Push
As the end of summer approaches, college football coaches finally get their hands on their new recruits—not to mention the rest of the team.
In addition to moving into the dorms, buying books, and finding out where the best hang-outs are on campus, college football incoming freshman have a lot extra on their plate: fall training camp.
Fall camp opens in early August, and the team starts preparing in earnest for the upcoming season. Position battles are won and lost, and coaches determine who will play and who will spend the season as a red shirt.
The nation's top recruits are seeing the field earlier than ever before. Still, for most freshmen, the red shirt is a simple fact of life.
But for those who have really prepared well, and benefit from a little luck and God-given talent, playing time is just a few weeks away.