Why not a 'real' spring game?

We think outside the box at InsideTennessee. That's why we polled several Vol football coaches about the concept of closing spring practice with an exhibition game against an outside foe, instead of the standard intra-squad scrimmage. For insights you won't get anywhere else, read on:

An announced crowd of 62,000 showed up to watch Tennessee’s Orange & White game, a glorified practice among guys facing one another for the 15th time in five weeks.

One can only imagine how many fans would show up at Neyland Stadium to watch the Vols close spring drills by facing a regional opponent (Clemson, for instance) in an exhibition game.

“Oh, it would be packed,” Vol offensive line coach Don Mahoney told InsideTennessee. “At a place like this, where the fans in my opinion are the best and their interest level is so great, it would be packed.”

If so, Tennessee could sell tickets at $10 per head and make a cool million. Give 25 percent to the visiting team, and you still clear $750,000. In addition to the financial advantages, playing a spring exhibition would excite the fan base and give the players a chance to hit someone wearing a different color uniform for a change.

It sounds like a win/win/win.

“Oh, man! That would be like a high school jamboree!” Vol linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. “I wish we could. I know guys get tired of beating up on each other, so a game that’s controlled would be good. The NFL does it (exhibition games) all the time. As long as it’s controlled, it sounds like a great idea.”

The Orange & White Game was a struggle because the Vols were too injury-depleted at some positions — notably the offensive and defensive lines — to field a first team and a second team. Depth would not be such an imposing issue when another team is providing the opposition.

“That could be pretty neat,” Vol tight ends/special teams coach Mark Elder said. “The thing you run into playing a spring game amongst yourself is that you can have depth problems. We’ve only got nine (offensive) linemen, so now you can’t divide them (into two five-man units). Or if you have 10 linemen and one of them gets dinged up you can’t divide them. Facing an opponent, you don’t end up dividing into teams, so I think that could be pretty interesting.”

Critics of a spring “game” routinely cite three drawbacks:

One: Caught up in the competitive zeal of facing an actual opponent, players would be more likely to suffer injury.

Two: Fans would expect their team to win, even if it’s only an exhibition.

Three: Being competitors, the coaches would leave their starters in longer and use more of the playbook than they would prefer.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, whose team was depleted even without playing a spring game, concedes that Point 1 would be his biggest concern.

“What you always worry about is injury, especially the way you end the season,” he told IT. “I think it (an actual spring game) would be challenging.”

Zach Azzanni also has concerns about facing an outside opponent to end spring drills.

Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

“Personally, I probably wouldn’t like that,” the Vols’ passing game coordinator/receivers coach said. “The summer, to me, is for training, not rehabbing. Injuries can happen anywhere but when you crank up two competitors I think the percentage for injury would go up.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Staging an intra-squad scrimmage puts 22 of your players at risk of injury on each snap. Conversely, facing an opponent means just 11 of your players are on the field at a given time. Thigpen, for one, believes injury is no more likely to occur in an exhibition game than in an intra-squad scrimmage.

“The impact’s the same,” he said with a shrug. “We hit every day in practice; that’s part of it.”

Facing a bona-fide opponent, however, could increase the risk of an injury resulting from a cheap shot.

“We’re going to play hard in a spring game but we make the rules, so we’re not cut-blocking and things that could hurt a player and deter his career for the summer,” Azzanni said. “We want to be full strength. I would be scared to do that (play an outside foe) just because the competition level really cranks up if you do that. Let’s save that for the fall I would say. Let’s let spring ball be what spring ball was for — just getting your fundamentals down and playing against your teammates.”

Azzanni’s concerns are not shared by Thigpen. Because it more closely resembles game conditions, he believes a spring exhibition would give assistant coaches a better read on the relative strengths and weaknesses of their position groups.

“The NFL does it; they play preseason games to get guys ready, especially young guys,” he said. “As far as learning the schemes and systems, it would give you a chance to game-plan and get young guys in there and see how they fare against older and more established teams.”

So, what about the pressure to win the exhibition game to appease your fan base?

“With anything, there’s that pressure,” Elder said. “There would be a lot from the media to raise or lower the hype. You weigh what’s more important: Is it winning that game or is it developing your guys, keeping certain guys healthy?”

Ultimately, he believes no team would put a player at risk just to win a spring exhibition.

“You want to win any competition that you have but it wouldn’t be at the expense of the fall,” Elder said. “It’s no different than now: You wouldn’t play someone in our spring game that would be vulnerable because of an injury. I believe the thinking for a scrimmage would be very similar.”

As for the idea that coaches would feel pressure to use more of the playbook when facing an actual opponent, Elder disagrees, noting: “The issue, obviously, is that you’re going to be bland and basic with what you’re doing.”

Mahoney believes some programs would face significant disadvantages in a spring-scrimmage format.

“Each team has different situations,” he said. “One may be healthier than the other. One may have had a longer season because of a bowl or playoff games. That’s a touchy thing. I think it boils down to the overall health of your kids and where they’re at in terms of their school work and all of those things.”

Still, Mahoney figures the idea has enough merit to warrant serious discussion.

“I wouldn’t necessarily shy away from a spring scrimmage,” he said. “If it’s good for the student-athlete, then I’m all for it. If it’s anything that puts them in danger physically or academically, I’m not. But that’s an interesting topic.”

Elder believes replacing the traditional intra-squad game with a spring scrimmage would generate considerable buzz, not only for the players but for the fans.

“After 14 practices against the same people, you’d have some fresh blood in there for Practice 15, the spring game,” he said, “so I think there would be a little more excitement to it.”

No doubt. And, given the unbridled passion SEC fans have for football, it’s a safe bet that spring exhibitions would be highly profitable.

“I don’t know if that will ever happen but I could see the NCAA doing something like that because it could be a money-maker,” Elder said. “That certainly would lead to a sold-out crowd. They could call it a ‘spring contest’ and generate more money in concession sales. That would be interesting.”

One spring exhibition proponent has suggested that part of the money raised go into a fund for retired assistant coaches.

“As I get older,” Thigpen said with a laugh, “I’d be all for that.”

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