May 5, 2021
If there’s anyone who knows the byproduct of a preseason camp with limited physical contact, it’s Ken Niumatalolo.
Many know the story by now. The Navy coach outlawed contact during the Midshipmen’s camp last August out of an abundance of caution and uncertainty surrounding the on-field spread of COVID-19. For four weeks, Navy players practiced, for the most part, flag football. Contact was almost strictly limited to banging against sleds and cushioned dummies. Helmets were mostly unscuffed, and shoulder pads were left in pristine condition at the end of camp. Players even used cushioned shields to cover their faces during one-on-one exchanges.
And then came the season opener against BYU, when the Cougars, clearly having gone through a more normal camp, bludgeoned Niumatalolo’s group in what he refers to as Navy’s worst game in the 13 years since he arrived in Annapolis.
“It was the softest our team has ever been,” he says eight months later. “It’s like sending someone to an MMA fight without actually practicing grappling. You can’t just hit the speed bag all day. But you can’t spar for 12 months, either.”
And therein lies the rub: How much contact is necessary in a preseason camp for college football players?
As technology and head trauma studies improve, college administrators and medical experts feel like they’re moving closer to an answer, even if it rankles coaches who are both entrenched in their beliefs and skeptical of emerging data.
In the last five years alone, college sports has stripped the teeth from fall camp in the name of safety, softening one of the more grueling, traditional rights of passage for NCAA football players. Officials have eliminated two-a-days, slashed practice days, added mandatory off days and reduced camp rosters.
The fifth change to fall camp in six years is expected to happen this month, as Sports Illustrated reported two weeks ago. Officials are poised to abolish long-standing collision drills, such as the Oklahoma Drill, and reduce the number of full-padded, contact practices and scrimmages that coaches can conduct in camp.
On Thursday, a subgroup of the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee is expected to recommend the changes to the Division I Council, which must okay the new rules at its May 19 meeting. Over the last two weeks, committee members have socialized the camp modifications across FBS and FCS conferences for feedback from hundreds of coaches.
Opinions vary greatly. For some, the changes present no real deviation from their normal camp regimen, needing only slight adjustments to meet the new requirements. For others, the modifications mean a significant overhaul to their camp schedules, and they claim the changes will further expose players to injury and impact the on-field product, such as Navy’s example last year.
“I understand what the Oversight and NCAA are shooting for—to make our game safer,” says West Virginia coach Neal Brown, a member of the American Football Coaches Association Board of Trustees. “I don’t think you’ll find a single coach against making it safer. The one aspect we have to keep in mind is, are we preparing the guys enough in this model for games?”
College football is indeed walking a tightrope, balancing between making practices safer and allowing enough physicality to ensure that players, especially freshmen, are prepared for a live game—a top concern among coaches. In fact, Niumatalolo believes one of his players last year sustained an injury because he was not prepared for the physical nature of the game.
At an Oversight subgroup meeting on Wednesday afternoon, committee members are expected to finalize the modifications. While the new rules keep the number of preseason practices (25) over the same amount of days (29), they regulate the type of practices coaches can hold.
In the committee’s original working model, coaches would be required to have at least nine helmet-only, paddless practices, up from the current requirement of two. Also, they could hold no more than eight full-padded practices, of which no more than 90 minutes could feature full contact (e.g., tackling to the ground). The other eight practices could be held in shoulder pads and helmets, referred to as “shells,” in which tackling to the ground is not allowed.
However, two weeks of feedback may result in a potential compromise between those from the medical field and the coaches, says Shane Lyons, West Virginia’s athletic director who chairs the Oversight Committee. The new working model would require one less helmet-only practice (going from nine to eight), but the time limit on contact during a full-padded practice may be reduced from 90 minutes to as few as 45 minutes.
The new system is being referred to as an 8-9-8 model: eight practices in helmets, nine in shells, eight in full pads. Under current rules, coaches are required to hold the first two practices in helmets and the next two in shells with the remaining days unregulated.
Most coaches do not operate 21 days of full pads, but some hold as many as 21 days in at least shells. For many, the new policy is a difference of two to four practices in only helmets rather than shells.
“For us, it will impact a couple of practices,” says Troy Calhoun, the longtime coach at Air Force who says he normally has his team in full pads or shells in about 19–20 days of camp. “We do have to be aware a little that the game is different now than it was 15 years ago, just the impact of the collisions. There are bigger, faster bodies playing the sport.”
Calhoun, who has operated the run-leaning option offense for years, estimates that the average offensive lineman in 1990 was 270 pounds. Today, he’s 310.
“Mass times acceleration drives force,” he says. “The impact of these collisions is just different.”
The committee’s changes were sparked by a study published in February that was funded by the NCAA and the Department of Defense. The study tracked head exposures in six D-I college football teams from 2015–19, finding that 72% of concussions occurred during practice and nearly 50% happened in preseason practice, despite it representing just one-fifth of the football season. Total head impacts in the preseason occurred at twice the rate of the regular season. More than 650 players from Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Wisconsin, UCLA, Air Force and Army were involved in the study.
Stefan Duma, a biomedical engineer and professor at Virginia Tech, led the study and believes the Oversight Committee’s actions are “appropriate and timely,” he says during an interview last week. In fact, similar practice modifications have already happened at both the NFL and youth league levels.
Changes at the Pop Warner level reduced head impact contact by half, he says, and the NFL’s reduction in practice contact has not resulted in a lesser on-field product.
“Fans and coaches are traditional and there is a tremendous amount of tradition in football,” says Duma, who has spent the past two decades in concussion research. “There is a resistance to change, but you can reduce preseason exposure and it will not affect the games and not increase the injury risk of players. That’s the false narrative, is that you have to have all this practice, otherwise we’re putting players at risk.”
In the future some are hoping for more expansive data. Two of the six teams chosen are option-running military academies and the third is Wisconsin, a program that for years has prided itself in a smashmouth, run-heavy attack.
Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, questions whether this is a true enough sample size. Despite the camp rule changes in four of the previous five years, Berry says teams have not seen a change in head trauma numbers.
“That’s disconcerting to the group,” he says.
The new policies mean more than one-third of a camp will be noncontact practices. That’s less time for those at the lower levels of FBS to train young players to compete in live games against Power 5 programs with more advanced athletes.
Coaches say it usually takes two weeks of practicing with contact for players to adjust to full speed physicality of the game. Some feel like they have, basically, lost a week of contact.
“There’s something to be said about playing football and having pads on,” says Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark. “There’s a lot different from a walkthrough to a padded practice.”
As part of the new rules modifications, officials are also restricting camp scrimmages from three and a half to two. That doesn’t bother Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell as much as the extra six noncontact practices, which he refers to as a “huge challenge.”
“We’re not the NFL,” Chadwell says. “You hear a lot of coaches complaining about sloppy play. We need that time to develop. You need to teach those guys from a physical standpoint. When you’re not a power program and are a development program like ours, you really need that time.”
The shells conversation aside, holding practices in full pads—helmets and shoulder pads plus hip, knee and quad pads—is a dying tradition. Liberty coach Hugh Freeze says he’s never as a head coach held full-padded practices, even dating to his days at Ole Miss. His teams only tackle to the ground in camp scrimmages but never in practice.
Even Niumatalolo’s option-based team held only about five full-padded practices in August 2019, he says. At USC, Clay Helton says the 8-9-8 model is similar to how the Trojans practice now. He expects the changes to put more onus on a staff’s organization and efficiency.
“You’re just going to have to be really productive with the full pad days,” he says. “The helmet days become more schematic and mental. I imagine you’re going to do a lot of throwing—those are your throwing days.”
At Maryland, Mike Locksley is operating camp in a similar fashion to his former boss, Nick Saban, and he says the new rules restricting coaches to 17 practices in shells is not a huge change. However, the elimination of the board drill is.
Nearly every coach who spoke to SI for this story says his team still uses the board drill, in which two players align inches apart in a three-point or four-point stance and then collide. The drill, coaches say, is less about toughness than the bull in the ring and the Oklahoma, two more violent collision drills that many have already abolished.
The board drill is designed to teach the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, they say. Frustration over its impending elimination is clear across the coaching community.
“Board drills are fundamental for O-linemen,” Locksley says. “I don’t know a way around it.”
Even a coach like Freeze says his team, despite never practicing in full pads, relies heavily on the board drill. The drill teaches a player good base and pad level, says Calhoun.
“Somehow, someway you’ve still got to simulate, at the point, the physicality of contact,” he says.
But there are alternate ways to achieve that simulation without conducting the drill, Berry says. Coaches need to move away from the one-on-one collisions and instead need to involve a running back and quarterback in the backfield who are executing a play.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t go one-on-one,” Berry says. “You just need to have a play called. As long as you’re simulating the game, you’re fine.”
Enforcing these new rules could be a difficult endeavor, says Paul Johnson, the former Georgia Tech coach whose teams excelled at the triple option for decades. He calls the new rules “ridiculous” and believes that diminishing full-padded practices will not reduce contact as much as officials hope.
“If you ever go to practice, they scrimmage in shells and they play full speed in shells,” he says. “Some people are going to go by the rules and some won’t. Who’s going to stand out there and tell Nick Saban you’re over the time limit? The Alabama compliance person? They wouldn’t be there long.”
Lyons believes that a team’s compliance and medical staff, as well as athletes themselves, can enforce the new rules. This past year has shown that players are no longer afraid to speak out about their coaches’ actions.
Would players report their own coach if they tackled full speed in shells or if they conducted the Oklahoma Drill?
“Athletes have avenues to report things,” Lyons says. “Cheaters are going to cheat. If somebody calls into question something, every practice is filmed. It’s up to the institution to look into it. I learned a long time ago you can’t legislate integrity.”
Meanwhile, back at Navy, Niumatalolo says he regrets nothing from his plan last August to abolish contact in the name of safety. The Midshipmen finished 3–7.
“I sacrificed the record of our team for the safety of our team with the information I had,” he says. “I would do the same thing again.”
While coaches bristle about the new camp changes, Niumatalolo expects everyone to adjust. And how about the product on the field? Will September be, for a second year in a row, especially sloppy?
Maybe. But, as the old adage goes, safety first.
“Will it affect the opening few games? Yes, I do think it will negatively affect play,” says Brown, the WVU coach. “Will the common fan notice? I tend to believe probably not.”