Injury risks make spring football a balancing act for coaches
ATHENS – Spring practice is great for a lot of people. It’s great for college football fans, who are always longing to hear more about their team. It’s great for coaches, who would probably drill their players every day of the year if they could. And it’s priceless for early enrollees, redshirt freshmen and backup players who rarely get on the field when the games count in the fall.
It’s even good for us sports writers, at least those of us living here in the South. We see our readership numbers increase significantly during this annual exercise.
You know who spring practice isn’t particularly good for? For veteran, established upperclassmen who have already been through two or three of these things. Like they say about that other sport that’s going on this time of year, for the guys who already know the playbook, are physically and mentally fit and have proven themselves in real games that actually count, you just want them to survive and advance through spring football.
Georgia has several players who fall into that category this year. Tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel come to mind immediately. So do outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter and safety Dominick Sanders. These are just a few of the players who probably could do just as well lifting weights and running regularly and reviewing their playbooks and game video a couple times a week.
How to get the most out of star players such as those guys without the undue risk of injury is one of the great balancing acts coaches all over the country will be trying to manage this spring.
“I think as a coach you’re always worried about that,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of protecting star players from injuries during the spring. “I know some coaches in college football who have the philosophy that if you’ve played 1,000 snaps in your career — which, let’s be honest, we’ve got a couple guys that have done that — is spring (practice) going to get them better.”
To his point, Smart thinks it does. But the injury risk to skill players in particular is particularly high. It’s not as much the contact as it is the wear-and-tear on the muscles and joints. All it takes is a little turf to move out from under some cleats on a hard cut for somebody to suffer a knee injury. Lose your balance a little going in for a tackle and all the sudden a linebacker might get his shoulder knocked out of socket. Same for a wide receiver or defensive back diving for a ball and landing on his shoulder.
It has been a while now, but the NCAA did a study back in 2007 in which it determined that spring football had the highest injury rate of all sports – 9.6 injuries per 1,000 participants. The second-highest rate was women’s gymnastics (6.1), followed by men’s wrestling (5.7) and men’s soccer (4.3). The next was men’s football in the fall, with a 3.8 injury rate per thousand, or one-third of spring football.
That considerable drop in injury rate was thought to be because fall practices were generally less physical than in the spring. Coaches feel like they can risk it with no games to worry about every week in March and April. And, of course, players have the rest of spring and summer to recover.
Not coincidentally, spring practice durations were cut back to a maximum of 15 per year shortly after that study was published. And only a limited number of those can be of the full-pads, full-contact variety.
But you know what else? These guys like to practice and to hit. They enjoy what they’ll be doing out on Woodruff Practice Fields the next month a lot more than the agonizing off-season, strength-and-conditioning training they’ve been put through since late January.
“I mean, I kind of want that,” Carter, the rising senior outside linebacker said of going through full-contact drills. “That’s the fun of football.”
And then there are the leadership and camaraderie aspects of getting physical with your teammates.
“It’s still a team,” said Michel, who comes in with 490 career touches, not including kick returns. “Nobody’s an individual. You still have to go out there and practice and work hard with those guys. Those young guys are going to be looking for you on the practice field the same they’re going to be looking for you on the game field. If you’re not practicing, you’re not going to be prepared to play, and you’ve got to be prepared all the time.”
Said Carter: “My attitude is I need to show the young guys how to do it. We need to show them the work it takes to get to where we want to go and to win championships. So I’m listening to the coaches and doing what they ask us to do. And I expect the younger guys to listen to me and the leadership on the team. We’ve got to lead by example. So we can’t let up. We’re not going to let up.”
Generally, the coaches just have to protect their established players from themselves. Smart said it is something they will be monitoring closely.
But they’re still going to want to see their marquee guys on the field and going through the paces with their teammates.
“In a controlled environment, there are things you can do … to reduce risks,” he said. “Drill work is obviously separate from 11-on-11. Every guy on our team can get better. We’ve got no guy that can’t improve. We preach that to them. We’re not going to take guys and say, ‘you sit out of this, you sit out of that, because of who you are.’ I think that can cause angst or problems from within.
“But we have to be smart as coaches, too, and understand that when we’re in a tackling environment, some of these guys have been tackled enough times to prove they can carry the ball.”