School Daze

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas academic counselor Bart Byrd illustrated the success of the NCAA's new early enrollment policy for incoming freshmen by stating the obvious Monday afternoon.

It was the first day of Arkansas' fall semester classes. And his office was empty.

"It's usually real hectic in here," Byrd said. "Usually there's a line of 10 to 15 (football players) in here on the first day of class."

Byrd's not complaining. In fact, he applauded NCAA rules that have allowed newcomers to sit in the classroom weeks before stepping onto the practice field.

For the first time, incoming freshmen were allowed to enroll in classes during the summer, participate in off-season workouts and get a head start on understanding what it takes to be successful student-athletes. It was a small sampling of what kicked into high gear Monday, when players began their annual five-month balancing act of classes and football practices.

That's why freshman defensive tackle Marcus Shavers considered the chance to enroll in classes this summer a blessing. He got a head start. And he's not sure how older teammates managed without the new rules when they were freshmen.

"I like to be comfortable in every situation I'm in," Shavers said. "And it wouldn't be a very comfortable situation if (Monday) was the first day, having to get your (student) ID card, getting your dorm room set up, practicing, going to class.

"I definitely think it's an advantage for the program and student-athletes to get on campus in the summer."

Arkansas assistant athletic director Paul Kirkpatrick, who is in charge of student life and academic support, said the new rules also gave his staff ample time to work with new students. That was nearly impossible last season, when orientation, counseling and academic assessment was sandwiched in between preseason practice.

Kirkpatrick said the academic staff had six hours to work with newcomers last year.

They had six weeks this summer.

"It was much easier to get their attention focused on academics," Kirkpatrick said. "Yeah, they're doing their workouts. But they don't have all the meetings and all the practice time and everybody on campus talking to them about the season and all that kind of thing. It's a much slower pace to help them get adjusted.

"We already got them into regular classes, regular study hall. We already know who needs tutors, who doesn't need tutors. All that is set up. It makes a difference."

The summer gave several players a chance to knock out remedial work required for freshmen-level classes. It gave others a chance to get ahead, earning as many as six credits toward their degrees.

Players weren't allowed to take electives, like physical education classes. Instead, they concentrated on degree requirements in areas like English, Sociology and Math.

The goal was to make sure each student began chipping away at NCAA degree requirements that have tightened the past few years. First-year student-athletes must have a 1.8 grade point average to be eligible as sophomores. Incoming freshmen also have two years to complete 40 percent of their degree.

"It helps them get indoctrinated," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said about the summer. "They know what it takes now to go to school on the college level. I think it's pretty positive. They got to ease into it."

And every Arkansas freshman that took classes this summer had success, earning a 'C' or higher. Byrd believes that type of success in class has spilled over to practice during preseason drills.

"I've heard a lot of coaches across the country say this: The guys that struggle in the classroom, a lot of times, you see them struggling on the field," Byrd said. "We had success in the classroom with our freshmen this summer. And for our success, you see a large population of the freshmen that may be playing this year.

"They came in early and they did everything that they're supposed to and it's been a real benefit for them."

Shavers heard how challenging college classes are, but got a chance to see for himself this summer when he took two classes.

"They say that coming up to college, these classes are hard," Shavers said. "But this summer, you got to see it for yourself and say, 'This isn't so bad.'

"It gives you the confidence you need going into the fall which is important."

That confidence might not translate into playing time for Shavers, who sits behind veterans like Fred Bledsoe, Marcus Harrison, Keith Jackson and Jeremy Harrell on the defensive tackle depth chart. But the six-week introduction could prove valuable for freshmen like Felix Jones, Darren McFadden, Freddie Fairchild and Tyrell Graham.

Every freshman will have more time to spend studying their playbook this week instead of trying to get into the right classes, track down textbooks and take care of all the usual first-week headaches. They learned how to work with professors on campus, where shown how to ask for tutors and spent time with advisors.

"I'm glad that I came early to get used to it," Jones said. "I think if I came right before two-a-days, I think I would've been struggling. I probably would've been home sick. I probably wouldn't have done the things I did on the field.

"I feel like I got a head start. I'm glad I did it."

There were only three scholarship freshmen that didn't come to campus for summer school. Byrd said they'll be easy to spot because of the "blank stare on their faces" after taking a crash course in college life this week.

The academic department believes it was such a beneficial summer that other sports, like baseball and track, will try to get incoming freshmen to enroll in classes and get acclimated to campus next summer.

"It's been a real big plus for us," Byrd said. "They got here on campus. They learned where some of the buildings were. They learned how to get their textbooks and react in classrooms in different settings. This is different than high school.

"The NCAA did a great job of allowing that to happen this year."

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