Coach Fulmer and staff have no doubt established several goals for the opening of spring practice on March 2. Every coach in America will have a similar list. Keep in shape. Evaluate talent. Identify leaders. Collect enough data and observations to fuel the summer game plans. With NCAA limits of only 15 practice days, spring is no time to install a complete offense or to begin complex game strategy. Added limitations are that three of the days are non-contact practices (helmets only), and four days can have limited contact with full pads optional, but with no tackling. That leaves only eight days of full contact practices. No more than three of the eight contact/tackling practices can be devoted primarily (greater than 50% of practice time) to 11-on- 11 scrimmages, including the Orange and White game, so the emphasis becomes football basics. Springtime is for fundamentals.
New coaches David Cutcliffe, Kurt Roper (running backs), Matt Luke (tight ends) and former running backs coach Trooper Taylor (now working with receivers) will have a first chance to see their protégés in action. New eyes are a powerful tool in college football, particularly in spring. In keeping with the concept of springtime and renewal, the new position coaches can take a fresh look at the players and their skills. For good or for ill, coaches and players develop complex relationships. Like any other relationship, these can have blind spots. Occasionally personalities will clash and a player won't play to his potential, or perhaps won't be given a fair shot to excel. A new coach and a new season gives everyone a clean slate. New coaches will often pick up on flaws in technique that had been overlooked. A different style or a new method of instruction or motivation will sometimes resonate with a player. Players always vie harder to impress new coaches. A new coach is a new chance to shine.
While the defensive coaching staff is an established corps, there are still opportunities to start over and to hit the basics. John Chavis and his cadre will be seeking replacements for six starting positions, including most of the defensive front seven. Spring will be a chance to see which linebacker or defensive end is ready to step up his game. In recent interviews, Coach Fulmer has emphasized a desire to see consistency. Some players can look like an All-American on one play and then disappear for a quarter or more. Getting that kind of player to give his best on every play begins in March and April.
Spring football begins at the very beginning. As Maria said to the von Trapp children, it is a very good place to start. The most basic of football skills and behaviors need to be emphasized. John Wooden, he of the ten NCAA basketball titles at UCLA, the Wizard of Westwood, used to begin the practice season with an entire session on how to put on socks and shoes. Players were troubled by blisters and foot problems and he discovered that the players didn't smooth out all the wrinkles around their heels and around their little toes, places where the blisters were prone to occur. He sometimes noted that they didn't lace their shoes properly or that they wore shoes that were a size too large. Such details mattered.
On the first day of practice, the coach would tell hotshot recruits like Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton, "Gentleman, today we're going to figure out how to put our shoes and socks on." Some players would be tempted to laugh or ridicule. Wooden would calmly explain that he'd seen many players are benched for blisters, and the easiest way to avoid them is to pay attention to the basics. He would meticulously show them how to roll up their socks and tighten their laces. "I wanted it done consciously, not quickly or casually," he said. "Otherwise we would not be doing everything possible to prepare in the best way."
Coach Wooden was teaching more than foot care. He was showing his team that the most fundamental things were important in preparation. It was a lesson in focus and attention to details. A player who spent the time to get his shoes and socks just right, was the kind of player who gave that same level of attention to his shooting, his passes and his defense. That approach is what spring football is all about.
While I have seen some players at Tennessee who could benefit from lessons about equipment, there are other basics to consider. Players need to be taught how to stand and where to stand. Sound simple? College football players have been getting into three-point stances for most of their lives. Many don't do it correctly. Problems with width of foot placement and balance lead to ineffective blocking, fatigue, and penalties. A player with a bad stance compromises his vision before the play. A player who isn't well balanced in his stance also has a harder time holding until the snap of the ball. Worse, still, bad stances can be a tip to the defense. Just like a wily Vegas poker player looks for "tells", defenses can see the variations in stance and hand placement that can hint when a run or pass is coming or when a line is pulling. Some coaches and players are masters at reading the stances, hands and eyes of an opponent. Film study searches for those kinds of things.
Receivers will need to establish quick, crisp routes. Modern pass routes are predicated on timing, space, and match-ups. If a route is designed to go 10 yards, but the player sometimes cuts it off at 7 or drags it out at 12, it can be the difference in a completion and a deflected pass (or worse). A quarterback needs to know where his receivers are going to be. I would wager that Tennessee backs and receivers will also practice catching the football with their hands. Dropped passes are almost always due to poor concentration. Players need a dose of the fundamentals. Precision. Attention to details like these begin in spring.
Defensive players begin again with positioning, footwork, and communication. Linemen on both sides of the ball must work on leverage and staying low. It may sound stupid, but many players need to be taught how to tackle. At the high school level, these players' outstanding athleticism, size or strength allowed them to have bad form and still dominate a game. College players are hard to bring down without lowering the shoulders, locking up and driving.
Quarterbacks must work on such simple tasks as the actual vocalization snap counts and audibles. Footwork and throwing mechanics, precise drops and stances precede reading defenses and making plays. The center exchange needs to be repeated thousands of times before a QB and his center mesh as a unit.
For running backs it is all about feet, eyes, and hands. Footwork at the line, good blocking form, keeping legs churning and holding on to the ball. Ball security will no doubt be a common emphasis.
There just aren't enough days in the schedule any more to accomplish major goals in spring. Football coaches and players have to choose where to place the focus. As important as the physical teaching is managing the psychology of spring. The players need to know what is expected of them. Spring sets the tone for the off-season and pre-season work to come. The personality of a team becomes evident is spring practice. Leaders will step to the front, or dissension will become entrenched.
One overlooked thing about spring football is that it is fun. Football is a fun game and spring football can get your blood flowing. Even though some of the coldest days of my life were spent in spring football fields. Springtime nourishes hope and excitement. Last season is over and the focus is on 2006. Whatever happens this fall, it will have its beginning in spring.
"O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?" -Percy Bysshe Shelley
Spring Practice Dates
Week 1 -- March 2, 3, 4
Week 2 -- March 7, 9, 11
Week 3 -- March 14, 16
Spring Break March 20-24
Week 4 -- March 28, 30, 31, April 1
Week 5 -- April 4, 6
Fans. Day -- April 8 (12:30-1:30 p.m. Eastern time)
Orange and White Game -- April 8 (2 p.m. Eastern time)
<-- The influx of new coaches Cutcliffe,), and makes that a guarantee.
"We'll be looking at some different things, and I'm really excited about it because David is going to bring a different perspective to it," Fulmer said. "They're coming from the outside in, he and Kurt and Matt.
"It'll be interesting to see how they evaluate the guys."
Basically, that's what spring practice is all about. It's a time for evaluation. Who are the leaders? Who are the young, hungry players ready to take the next step to SEC elite.
"It's to find the players who are going to be committed and consistent with what we're trying to do," Fulmer said. "The hardest guy in the world to coach is the guys who grades out 90 percent one day and 40 percent the next. It's impossible to know what to expect from him.
"We're looking for the guy who is going to be consistent and doing what he's physically capable of doing. That's the point of emphasis."
John Wooden and the Fundamentals of Nutrition
John Wooden is a cool guy. I frequently refer to him in my work with our clients.
For those of you not familiar with Coach Wooden, he's arguably the best coach ever (especially if you're a UCLA alum!). His UCLA Bruins won 10 NCAA Basketball Championships, including 7 in a row. He's a humble man who believes in and teaches fundamentals.
One of my favorite Wooden stories is about the first thing he taught his players--some of the best players in the country. What did he teach them first?
How to put on their socks!!
Why? Because if they didn't get that simple act perfected then they might get a blister. If they got a blister they'd miss practice time. If they missed practice time they wouldn't win championships.
And his teams won--ten NCAA Championships, of course.
In my opinion, the same rules hold true for our lives. If we don't nail the simple things in all aspects of our life, especially our nutrition, then how are we going to win championships (aka experience areté, reach our potential, achieve consistent balance and happiness, whatever you want to call it)?
If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, you may want to "learn how to put on your socks" so you can avoid your next "blister"!
Wooden Fundamentals Applied
The fundamentals: They're not very glamorous.
It's not quite as cool to say, "Hey, I'm working on the fundamentals!" as it is to share stories with a friend who's trying to make sure they "stay in the zone" at every meal or get enough protein or whatever.
The good news, however: Fundamentals work.
If you know Coach Wooden, you know that he's not a huge fan of "dunking" and other "non-fundamental" activities. The Coach is a classic guy. He prefers a good-old-use-the-backboard-layup. The kind of shot you won't miss too often.
We haven't had a conversation with Coach Wooden about nutrition, but my guess is he'd be a little skeptical of all of the "dunking" people are trying to do before they master fundamentals.
Rather than spend all of your energy trying to get a sweet looking, crowd pleasing, reverse tomahawk dunk mastered (read: master a fad), my guess is that he'd recommend you do another couple thousand lay ups (read: master the fundamentals).
Why? Wooden knows that what really matters isn't what you do when you are ahead or the game plan is going as planned. Anyone can win then. Wooden knows that the Championship team is defined in those moments when the game is on the line. With 2 seconds left and the game on the line in the Final Four, Wooden's players were prepared. And they won. Consistently.
When you're stressed out does your "diet" fall to pieces? Or, do you have great fundamentals and get through crunch time without losing a step?
Now, I'm not saying you can't throw down a sweet dunk once in a while. I happen to enjoy that, too. What I am saying, however, is that before you get too fancy, make sure you've mastered the fundamentals. Then go for the fancy stuff.
I don't know about you, but when I first studied nutrition, my head started spinning. It seems like all the "experts" disagree on a lot of issues. Some tell us to eat a lot of protein, some tell us protein is evil, some tell us to be in the "zone" (to combine our carbs, proteins and fats perfectly at every meal), while others tell us never to combine starches and proteins.
To be honest with you, I don't really care who is right. No doubt they all have figured out some pieces of the puzzle, and soon enough that puzzle will be put together.
Until then, the philosophy we share with our clients is pretty simple. We focus on the fundamentals. The stuff that everyone agrees on--even the rivaling fad experts. -->