As football practice began on Tuesday across the Bluegrass, teams were allowed to wear helmets and no pads as they prepare for the 2018 season.
Those limitations are held for five practices, when they’ll be allowed to wear shoulder pads until August 1, when teams can go full pads for the remainder of the preseason leading into the first game come Augusta 17.
The question begs…Is 16 days in full pads enough time to be ready once the Friday Night Lights roll around?
Here’s what some coaches had to say from around the area:
Mason County coach Jonathan Thomas: “I look at it two ways…with teams that have the depth and a lot of kids and don’t have to worry about injuries, it’s probably not a good thing. Those kids can hit a lot more than we can. With our depth, we can’t get hurt so it’s probably a good thing for us. We want to be as healthy as we can entering the season and put all things in place to make sure we do so.”
Fleming County coach Bill Spencer: “I refer it to the Smokey and the Bandit movies, ‘We’ve got a long ways to go and a short time to get there.’ A lot of these kids don’t know what movie that is, but it does seem like the practice time has shortened up some.”
Lewis County coach Josh Hughes: “My opinion is it’s not a bad thing. If more kids are getting hurt than I’m fine with the new rules to prevent that. Adding a scrimmage just a few days into full pads is a little iffy, but overall I don’t have a problem with it.”
In a world where player safety is at a premium and rightfully so, limited time in full pads must create other avenues in which coaches can still teach the basic tackling fundamentals. Spencer and Thomas alluded to the rugby-style tackling they’ve brought into their programs.
“We’re aiming for the legs instead of up at the numbers and hoping to reduce head injuries,” Spencer said.
“You can have contact without pads and still learn how to tackle which is a good thing for us,” Thomas added.
With better equipment over the years including tackling dummies, sleds, bags, shields, etc., tackling fundamentals are now taught differently than in the past. Drills like bull-in-the ring, where one player gets in the middle of a circle of other players, who take turns hitting the man in the middle, the Oklahoma drill, where a running back, offensive lineman and defensive lineman vie gladiatorially in a confined space; and triple butt, where a tackler buries his head in the numbers of an advancing runner from 10 yards away as they circle around pylons to repeat the contact twice more are now things of the past.
“You use a lot of other equipment more. Tackling dummies, pads, shields. We utilize those a lot more than beating up a lot more on each other,” Spencer said, who enters his ninth season as head coach of the Panthers.
Game action against another opponent in preseason play can also be seen as beneficial to teams. The KHSAA adopted a new rule this season where teams are allowed to have a second scrimmage game compared to just one in prior years, allowing an extra dress rehearsal before things get real.
The majority of those scrimmages are set up for August 4 and August 10, which points to Hughes’ original statement in the limited practice time, most teams will have just three days in full pads before facing another opponent.
“Any time you get a chance to see your kids go against other kids, it’as a good thing. Seven-on-seven’s are great, but there’s no contact. These first scrimmages you can treat as a practice, not keep score, no one knows the result and get a joint practice,” Hughes said, who will be leading the Lions for his 11th season.
The August 10 scrimmage creates a lot more live-game scenarios and sets up like a real tune-up prior to the following week, the first game of the season.
Another thing to factor in regards to practices is the start-up of school being in session. Lewis County begins August 8, Fleming County and Bracken County August 9, and Mason County August 15. Teams vary in their practice approach leading up to the first day of school, but once school is in session, teams are limited to practicing after school.
Does that create an advantage for some schools still being able to hold two-a-days where others are limited to one practice after school?
For Lewis County, Hughes sees it as beneficial with school being back.
“Two-a days are tough for us to begin with. Our kids have to find ways to travel to school and it’s difficult for some of them which makes it impossible to hold two-a-days. That part hurts us for sure. We can’t get every kid at practice until school starts, so starting school earlier than others plays out good for us,” Hughes said.
The later start works well for Mason County.
“With so many new parts, a new quarterback, a new backfield, o-line, linebackers, it’s good for us,” Thomas said, entering his fourth season with the Royals. “Once school starts, it’s a little adjustment for us. The kids can be tired from the first days of school. We’re hoping having early practices helps offset that a bit.”
The Panthers are aware with the August 9 school start, planning out efficient practices becomes vital.
“With the time crunch, we’ll manage our time well and be efficient in things that we do, knowing we can’t waste time,” Spencer said.
With the limited time in pads, teams are finding ways to make it work and adapt. The season itself is a grind, lasting 11 weeks with a bye week added in, plus playoffs. For the 12 teams that vie for a state title in their respective class, they’ll play 15 games…one game short of an NFL regular season and more than all college football teams except for the two that play for a national title. Luckily in the high school game, the season is broken up into three parts, the four to five games played prior to district play, then the most important games of the regular season with district play and then playoffs. So teams get roughly a month to get everything ironed out before the games really count.
With all due respect to other sports out there, football is one of the most complex sports out there and practice time is essential. All 11 players need to be on the same page at all times whether it be offense, defense or special teams. If not, that’s where people could get hurt, being out of place or being in a spot they’re not supposed to be.
With limited practice time and the start of the season set for August 17, the earliest since 2012, it will be interesting to see the quality of play once the regular season rolls around. At least they’ll have some time to figure it out before the games really matter.