Last month, in the first of a two-part interview, 2015 Irish captain Joe Schmidt revealed the process of winter conditioning for the Notre Dame football program.
With spring drills beginning this week at Notre Dame, Schmidt talks about the process of the 15-practice spring session: how the young players approach it, how the veterans adjust along the way, and the significance of taking advantage of these opportunities, particularly as it applied to him as a) young player and b) a walk-on trying to make his mark.
The following is the second of a two-part interview with Schmidt on the importance and nuances of spring football practice at Notre Dame.
We had some hard workouts during the last week before spring ball.. You’re getting after it, and when you come back from spring break, we start with a helmet practice on Wednesday after a lift on Monday to get us back into the swing of things coming back from vacation.
Once spring starts, we pull back a little bit in the weight room, but we still lift pretty hard. Spring practices are very physical. They’re long and they’re fundamental driven for the most part.
It’s a great opportunity for young players and guys that want to improve on the basic fundamentals of the game. It’s less about coming up with the right defensive or offensive call and more about trying to get better at the techniques and fundamentals, how to play good defense and offense, and how to improve whatever your conceptual learning is.
I wouldn’t say the prevailing attitude is that spring practice is a ‘necessary evil.’ Certain people love football and playing, and every time they’re out there it’s a joy. Other people realize they need to get the reps and get better if they want to play the next season.
There are some people that do not like it and it’s kind of like how it’s going to be. It’s that bell curve of people, and that’s how it is on a football team as well. You have a little bit of everything when it comes to the players’ attitude toward it. Younger guys struggle with spring ball a little more.
For me, I knew that my time playing football could end at any point. I’ve seen so many people get hurt and have it taken away from them. So I tried to take each spring practice as an opportunity to play the game that I love playing. I was getting work with all my best friends, which was awesome.
It’s important to have the perspective that you’re trying to build the necessary relationships to have a great season. I tried to make sure the defense was building together. While everyone was focusing on his individual game – certainly I was too -- I wanted to make sure the chemistry had started to build. I wanted to make sure that people started getting used to playing with one another and started to develop communication between players, coach to player and player to coach.
I’ve always been interested in that aspect. Even as a younger player, especially with guys like Dan Fox, who I had a good relationship with, we communicated every series we would be in -- practice or game, spring or fall. We’d always come off to the side and say exactly what we saw between the two of us. That extra set of eyes really helps.
When I started getting into it from a larger scale was going into my senior season (2014), which was my first year as a starter. That spring was my first time trying to take that role of being the driver on the field.
You have no idea when you’re going to have a new coach or how things are going to work out. Going into the spring of 2014, we had a new defensive coordinator. So you roll with the punches and take it as it comes.
We were drinking through a fire hose that first spring with Coach (Brian) VanGorder. It was really exciting. It was fun for me to go to practice. I never dreaded going to practice. I was playing well, I was learning a ton, and I was just trying to give everything I could to get better.
I was getting a ton of reps and Coach VanGorder was eager to teach us. We were all eager to learn. I thought it was a great spring. I look back on those 15 practices as some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing football.
When I say we focus on technique and fundamentals in the spring, we’re still having high-level conversation and we’re still doing some exotic stuff, especially with a new coordinator. It’s not game planning and there is a lot more time to be spent on fundamentals. But when you get into August training camp, you’re getting ready for that first game. You better know what you’re doing going into training camp.
Spring practice covers a month and they’re long, physical practices. You’re beat up, but it’s not the same as a 13-game schedule. Whenever you’re going live – contact football against a very good opponent, whether it’s another team or your own teammates in practice – it takes a lot out of your body.
I remember my first spring at Notre Dame, which was much different than it was for me later in my time at Notre Dame. We had spring football in high school, but it was a much different kind of spring football. It was very serious, but not nearly the same contact.
Those first years of spring football at Notre Dame was a transition time. I was trying to learn how to be functional as a linebacker and, at the time, what coach (Bob) Diaco wanted from me. You’re a young kid just trying to figure out how to be a better football player and eventually earn some participation time.
I remember as a young guy how difficult that time was. (California) guys like me and Troy Niklas…I don’t think I brought my winter coat to school until the end of February my freshman year. So we were walking around in Sperrys, just struggling, still trying to get acclimated to everything about being at Notre Dame. It was a tough period for us.
Even when you’re older and you’ve ‘established’ yourself, you still want to get as many reps as possible in the spring. You don’t want to miss those reps because you’ll never get them back. You sideline your development when you stop playing. You never want to miss reps.
Yes, with certain injuries, you’ll stay out (of contact) with something you might play through in the fall. But you’re still playing through a lot during spring ball. You build a mental and physical toughness during spring ball. You don’t want to lose that edge to where you start feeling sorry for yourself like, ‘Oh, my shoulder hurts!’
That’s the wrong way to think. You’ve got to go out there and push through it, improve and not think about your shoulder hurting too much. You’d be amazed. You put your head down and power through it. You can push your body a lot further than you believe is possible.
We meet before every practice in the spring. Generally it’s 15-to-30 minutes of special teams, followed by an hour of position/unit meeting. So an hour-and-a-half meeting time every time we practice. That time alters a bit, but practices are two hours. Generally, it’s a 24-period practice. (Note: each “practice period” is five minutes.)
Without getting into game plan, we kind of build from the ground up. You’re putting your defense in and you’re trying to teach the young guys from the bottom up how to play defense and how to be good.
It’s a highly competitive time, one of the more competitive times you’ll have. For the young guys, you get an opportunity to show what you’re made of and that you can play some football because there are a lot of reps to be had.
The first good impressions that I was able to make came in the spring because of, ‘Hey, this guy, this guy and this guy aren’t going today; we need you to go play this position and be functional in practice.’ I looked at those times when I was young as huge opportunities.
You never know when your opportunity is going to come, and a lot of times, it comes during spring football. Obviously, no position is set. All of these positions in spring are up for grabs, so everybody is trying to play consistently good football.
We’re always going to be playing against the (No. 1) offense, and when you looked at our offense last spring, we knew it was one of the best in the country. On the flip side, our defense is challenging to play against, so we’re having a lot of competitive reps against each other, maybe six-to-eight periods (30-to-40 minutes) of combined offense-on-defense work. It’s highly competitive.
In the spring, you’ll start to see young guys that have a lot of potential. You look across to the offense and you start to see which young guys are going to be players. The same on the defensive side. It’s fun to start seeing it shake out this time of the year.
I came out of spring ball as a sophomore as a No. 2 guy, and then I went into the first game that fall as the No. 3 guy. Nothing is set in stone because you had a good spring or a good training camp.
It’s a performance-based system and that’s why these next four weeks for these guys are so important. Not everyone realizes how important every practice, every rep is, especially when you’re young. Those that do can gain an advantage.