A Better Understanding of the Student-Athlete

Many fans have asked me what my motivation was to attend Penn State's Football Fantasy Camp. Don't be fooled; I, like many who follow the Blue and White, had delusions of grandeur about putting on the uniform, running out of the tunnel and making a play or two in Beaver Stadium. But that was not the primary reason for me to go to the camp.

For the past 11 years I have covered Penn State football — the first eight years were with PSU Playbook, with the latter three with Fight On State. I have seen the good and the bad with Penn State, both on and off the field. I have had the opportunity to play a role in some phenomenal, but lesser known aspects of the program, like Lift For Life and Penn's Civilians.

During this time I have also seen individuals, those who see Penn State as a hobby and those who see it as the basis for a career, harshly criticize the program, and specifically the players — whether they don't perform up to expectations or have issues off the field. I'm certainly not saying that writers and fans cannot or should not voice their criticisms; however, for me, I wanted a better understanding of what exactly a student-athlete goes through at Penn State.

To start, let me give you a brief background on myself to let you know where I am coming from; I went to Penn State and was in the Blue Band for four years, which involved almost daily practices, weekly music and drill memorization, and getting into solid shape physically. I graduated with a B.S. degree in marketing, honors with distinction, so I understood what it was like, to a degree, to balance this level of a commitment with classes.

Head Games

To start with, you can toss aside the stereotype that football players are not cerebral. During our first team meeting defensive backs coach Brian Norwood stepped to the front of the class to talk us through our defensive playbook, saying, "We're going to be playing zone and man schemes, so you need to know your matchups and understand whether you're playing hitch to curl or curl to flat. When they stack a side and you're in Sky coverage, you need to call out your shifts and use the press to maintain your zone. In a Man-Free scheme watch the motion and underneath routes."

So, two sentences in, those players who were not armed with a general understanding of the game and PSU's basic terminology were scratching their heads. Now, certainly Coach Norwood takes this approach by design, mostly because he gets some fun out of it, but this is not too far off from how things actually happen at PSU.

During camp we learned four basic sets — two zone coverages and two man coverages. Toss in the blitz schemes and you're basically talking six general defensive sets. I don't think there was one practice or game play where someone wasn't asking where they should be playing — the point being that it is not that easy learning how to play two to three positions in six schemes. Toss in the fact that I was calling the schemes and I just started going with what seemed to best suit our defensive unit — reading an offensive set and calling out and setting a match-up defense in four or five seconds is not that easy to do.

On offense the coaches realized memorizing 20 or so plays was too much to ask, so they held up play cards in the huddle. So we had a diagram and I still found myself taking a good 15 to 20 seconds to study the play to get it right.

Compare this to Penn State's student-athletes who play football; they need to learn upward of 100 plays, many of which have an average of three variations with shifts, stacks, blitzes, disguises, etc. So, that's 300 plays they have to memorize. More often than this, they have to memorize all the positions on each play so they know what the other players are doing and can shift to that position if needed. During his junior season, for example, Michael Robinson had to know what the receivers, quarterback and running back did on every play, since he was playing these multiple rolls.

Again, we had to learn six defensive plays and had our offensive plays spoon-fed to us. I consider myself to be fairly intelligent, as were my teammates, and I had to work at calling the defense with regular refresher looks at the playbook — I even had a coach's sleeve with the play calls on it during the game. It's not as easy as it looks, and multiply that by 50 and you have to appreciate the head on the shoulders on guys like Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor.

Let's Get Physical

During camp we ran four practices and had a 60 minute game. Our team came out with our fair share of injuries. I sustained some bruised ribs which I am still nursing four days after camp. Granted the average student-athlete's age is 20+ years younger than the average fantasy player's age, and I'd suspect that our practices were also dramatically less intense than the sessions the varsity players go through.

While we ran some agility, blocking, footwork and coverage drills one practice, the PSU team would have run 10 more drill stations at at least double the pace of our workouts. Plus they do this three to four times per week during the season.

Also, bumps and bruises are part of the game. While fantasy players could take a break with a strain or cramp, players are typically expected to keep going. I didn't miss a station or a play due to my rib injury (which did impact my breathing on runs), but I can't imagine playing weeks on end with that sort of pain, which intensified for me in the days after the conclusion of camp.

Oh yeah, and I should note we did not do serious live hitting and our game was of the flag variety. Add in the intense hitting the team does and it is amazing the players survive through and entire season.

Scratching the Surface

Camp was a workout with a fraction of the playbook, drills and responsibilities compared to the expectations placed on the student-athletes. Plus they have regular weight lifting sessions, voluntary practices, squad and unit meetings — oh, and those little things called classes and maybe a semblance of a social life, if the guy is especially good a juggling.

So I came in looking to gain a better understanding of what Penn State's football student-athletes have to deal with and left with a greater appreciation of what these individuals are able to accomplish.

In short, what they do is incredible.


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