Training camps all across college football are starting this week. Campuses will soon be filling with the sounds of cleats clicking across pavement and shoulder pads cracking into each other. Only this year, most places can expect to hear a little bit less.
As technology to track players’ workloads become more popular and concerns about safety grow, most programs are steadily decreasing the amount of time they spend on the field in August -- and the chunk of that time that is dedicated to hitting. Veterans of fall camp have noticed the difference, and for the most part are pleased with the change.
The NCAA allows each team to hold a total of 12 live contact practices, no more than four in any given week, before the regular season begins. Fewer teams will use all of those this year. Some conferences decided to put in more stringent rules about how frequently teams can practice with full contact. Coaches are also steering their schedules away from double sessions. Last month, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said he planned to do away with two-a-days during the Razorbacks’ camp and many other teams will reduce the times they have multiple practices in a day.
Purdue center Robert Kugler said he’s noticed a general decrease in physical practice time since he joined the Boilermakers five years ago. He said the lighter pace in August has made a difference in how fresh he feels throughout the regular season, and there is no love lost for grueling two-a-days.
“Somebody’s lying to you if they tell you they love two-a-days,” Kugler said. “They’re good. You can see what your team is made of, but I’m not the biggest fan of two-a-days. I think it’s better on your bodies in the long run to not do it.”
In the past, most coaches relied on those long, hot days to help build toughness and camaraderie in their teams. One team that still subscribes to that school of thought is Michigan, where new coach Jim Harbaugh tested his team with four-hour practices throughout the spring and handed out “Play 60” shirts to players who made it through all 15 practices.
Michigan hasn't publicized any details about its practice schedule this month, but Harbaugh did tell his team to expect a "camp nobody has ever seen before." His players say they may not love the long practices, but they see their value.
“It’s about suffering together,” senior linebacker Joe Bolden said. “When you suffer together, you care for one other. Two-a-days I think are a good thing. … I would say to the people making the rules, don’t make the game soft.”
Other players from around the Big Ten don’t think you need to be physical in practice in order to develop toughness. Penn State cut back on its practice in the preseason and late in the regular season last year when James Franklin arrived. The Nittany Lions, short on depth due to NCAA scholarship sanctions, needed to avoid injuries.
Hard-hitting safety Jordan Lucas said the team adopted more of a professional approach to practice -- doing only enough hitting and tackling to make sure their fundamentals stayed sharp. His teammate, defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, agreed and said he benefits as much from mental reps in preseason camp as he does from the physical ones.
“College football is so mental,” Zettel said. “It’s kind of like the pro mindset. You don’t have to be out there killing each other the whole time. Being healthy is the most important thing. The season is a long season now. Not having that physical wear and tear on your body is going to be beneficial.”