College football is evolving. The advent of NIL and the transfer portal altered the way rosters are constructed and maintained. Change is the current constant for the modern landscape of college football. That’s probably a good thing considering the sport remained chained to outdated beliefs about labor. As the game moves towards a model resembling professionalism, another casualty could be spring football.
Putting together the summer magazine provided me with an interesting trip across the state with a stop at each of the 12 FBS programs in Texas to visit with coaches and players. Sure, most of the talk focused on the 2022 season, but conversations naturally detoured into the current situation in college athletics. One of under-the-radar themes of my visits was the emerging hardship of conducting the old-school 15-pracitce and a spring game spring schedule.
Spring practice is as much an evaluation period as a developmental period in the current landscape. In some cases, there simply aren’t enough players to conduct a traditional spring. A normal football team loses 15-20 seniors from the previous year. Add in 5-10 spring enrollees and the average team in the past played spring football with 70 or so scholarship players. The transfer portal lowered those numbers. Let’s say 10 to 15 more players enter the transfer portal following the season and only five or so transfer in at the start of the year. That would put a team at 55 to 60 scholarship players.
At least five of those 60 are out of spring due to surgeries following the season. Another five or so are still recovering from in-season surgeries and can’t compete in full-contact drills and yet another five get injured in the first week of spring practice. That leaves a coaching staff with 40 to 45 healthy participants in the spring. A few are quarterbacks. Maybe one or two others are kickers. There aren’t enough bodies for a two-deep offensively or defensively with those numbers. The Texas Longhorns scratched a traditional spring game altogether in 2022 citing a lack of offensive linemen.
“In today’s world, I’m not sure your roster is set until the middle of August,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “You have an idea of what it should look like, but sometimes you need adjust based on what is on campus.”
Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen pitched eliminating spring practices in favor of the OTA model used in the NFL. An OTA, which stands for Organized Team Activity, are programs designed to help players improve through in-person meetings and classroom instruction with less on-field practice. The Cougars lost All-Freshman running back Alton McCaskill to a major knee injury during the most recent spring practice. Holgorsen said that the pandemic taught him that most of what needs to be accomplished in the spring can be done away from the football field.
Most of the other coaches concur. They’ll point to the offseason conditioning program or the summer as pivotal moments for their program. You won’t find any who will say a great spring equates to a tremendous fall, or that a bad spring means a program is doomed. The season is more than four months away when spring practices are going on across the state. It used to be a chance for young players who didn’t get a ton of reps in the fall to play catchup heading into the summer. A way for coaches to develop their talent. But with more freshmen playing immediately, and even more transferring out of a program when those hopes aren’t realized, how beneficial is it to bang bodies against each other for 15 practices when the coach isn’t even sure if those guys are still going to be on campus during the fall?
“I’m developing players for their next stop in more than a few situations,” one coach told me. “How does it help our team to work with a reserve left guard for three weeks just to see him transfer out of the program by May 1? Conversely, how do I go about developing rhythm and timing when I know there are 10 guys arriving on June 1 that will be in our two deep?”
New rules and regulations are emerging. Smoke is swirling about unlimited scholarship allotments and transfer windows. The NCAA wants to reign in the collectives dominating talent acquisition in college football (lol) and get NIL to be a reward rather than an enticement as originally intended.
Those are smart moves. So is changing the modus operandum. Two-a-days were scratched when it was clear that the negatives outweighed any positives. Spring football is likely next, at least in the way we view it in our mind’s eye.
“I don’t even look at it as better or worse, it is the new norm,” North Texas head coach Seth Littrell said. “Everything changes. You either adapt or you fade away.”
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