Matthew Tant was a high school All-American at Harpeth High School who led the Indians to four straight region championships. The prized recruit brought along an impressive string of prep honors when he reported to Vanderbilt's fall training camp.
Two weeks later, he has concluded that accolades don't mean much once you step on a college campus. The transition can be a rather overwhelming and humbling experience.
"That first day of contact, when I was putting on pads for the first time, I was thinking, man, I've been waiting for this since I was a little boy... you know, becoming a college football player, putting these pads on," laughs Tant. "Then after so many two-a-days, it's like, Geez! Let me go back home!"
Two weeks of training camp will do that to you. The phrase "they don't know what they don't know" comes to mind.
Many of us have had the experience of going off to college for the first time. But relatively few have had the experience that Tant has had, i.e., reporting as a student-athlete to a college football training camp in the early-August heat. It's an experience more comparable to military boot camp than to the usual dizzying litany of freshman mixers and rushes.
Tant and 24 other freshmen reported to camp on Sunday afternoon, August 5. In the old days, upperclassmen arrived first. But mercifully, nowadays freshmen get a three-day head start-- giving them a chance to orient themselves to the coaches and their new surroundings before their older counterparts arrive.
The next day, Monday, was consumed by a full schedule of orientations and meetings. "Most of it was academic meetings with different people we're going to work with throughout our careers here... the media relations people... our academic counselors... just learning all the ropes," said Tant. "We got all our classes scheduled if we didn't have that done."
From then until the first day of classes, it's a grueling schedule of eating, breathing and sleeping football. Players are awakened at 5:30 each morning. They practice, they eat, they go to meetings. Then they practice more, eat more, and go to more meetings. There is literally no downtime, even on weekends. "We have meetings until about 9:30, 10:00 at night. By then it's time to go to bed," said Tant.
During camp, players are supervised 24 hours a day. They are not allowed to leave campus, or even have a car on campus for the first few weeks. They are permitted little contact with the outside world. Their entire existence consists of the dorm, the field, and McGugin Center.
One of the biggest challenges for freshmen is learning the schemes quickly-- in Tant's case, the offensive playbook. Those who do so stand a chance of playing as true freshmen-- while those who don't can look forward to a redshirt year. "For freshmen, so much of it is mental," said Tant. "Some of us might be really good, and can step on the field and play instantly. But if you don't know what you're doing on offense, or what you're supposed to be doing on defense, you're not going to play in a game."
Tant and a good number of other freshmen were present this summer for informal "voluntary" workouts, the kind that have almost become mandatory nowadays at most big schools. That gave him a big jumpstart, he says now. "I got in a lot of information in 7-on-7... about half the offense, and some of the pass protections. It helped quite a bit."
If you survive two-a-days and manage to learn the offense, it's possible for a talented true freshman to see action right away, as a handful do so each year. The decision-- to redshirt or not to redshirt-- is made by the coaches on an individual basis, and a player's family is generally involved. A player's course of study also factors in. But by far the biggest factors are the team's needs, and a player's level of readiness. Sometimes the decision is not made for true freshmen until midway through the season.
Matthew Tant will prepare and dress for each game, as though he is going to play. The guess here is that he will see plenty of action in 2001, in the two-back formation if not the one-back. An amazing physical specimen for a mere freshman, he has a body that definitely passes the look test. He gained over 1,000 yards each of the last two years for Harpeth.
Though fully capable of taking over a high school game, Tant has found the going much tougher so far in practice. "The speed and tempo of the game are so much faster in college," said Tant. "Everybody's fast. They're all good. They're just as big as you are, and just as strong."
Other differences between high school and college? "There's a lot more meetings," he said. "We have meetings before and after every practice about what you did wrong, and what you've got to correct. The coaching's a lot more intense. My coaches in high school were a lot more laid back. We've had to get to work here to get things done."
Another reality that freshmen must learn to deal with is the gentle "hazing" dished out by the upperclassmen. A longstanding Vanderbilt tradition dictates that freshmen perform bus boy duty for upperclassmen at all meals. Freshmen also frequently find themselves the victims of pranks and ribbing. "It's been a little hard to get used to," Tant acknowledges.
Ah, but IF you survive all this... you are ready to represent your school on the field of play. Tant, who plans to major in Human Organization and Development, says that after the intensity of two-a-days, actually attending classes should almost be a relief. "I'm looking forward to being able to get away from the Vanderbilt campus for a night or so," he says.
"I'm ready to see some girls, too."
Oh well... it's good to know that freshmen are still freshmen.