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PERSPECTIVE

High school football preseason camps are less physical as rules change

Tristan Pierce of Grandview High School in Ohio tackles a dummy during team practice. With an eye on avoiding concussions, coaches are teaching players safer ways of making a tackle.

JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH

By STEVE BLACKLEDGE | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: August 17, 2019

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — High school football coaches, old and young alike, cringe when they hear about how preseason two-a-days used to be conducted.

Those horror stories often included coaches denying players water, making them absorb hits until they were black and blue, and running them until they collapsed, vomited or simply quit the team.

"The old days simulated a Marine boot camp," said Newark coach Bill Franks, speaking partly from his experience as an all-Ohio receiver at Newark Catholic in the mid-1980s under legendary drill sergeant J.D. Graham. Franks played on three state championship teams.

"J.D. did a great job instilling habits and mental and physical toughness in his players, and I have all the respect in the world for him," Franks said. "But in hindsight, we were physically worn out until October from two-a-days. Sure, we were tougher, but we maybe weren't as explosive as we could have been.

"It's a new game, and a much better game in my opinion."

With football at all levels coming under scrutiny for concussions and other serious injuries, the National Federation of State High School Associations in recent years gradually put in dramatic rule and procedural changes with player safety at the forefront.

Both in the preseason and regular season, guidelines are in place for how often teams can hold full-contact practices. During the season, teams are limited to 60 minutes per week, and no more than 30 minutes in one day. Helmets and shorts are a common sight in most so-called two-a-days, which often amount to one three-hour session or a longer practice with lengthy breaks.

"In the old days, they just didn't know better," said Worthington Christian coach Jeff Hartings, a two-time All-American offensive lineman at Penn State and two-time All-Pro during an 11-year NFL career with Detroit and Pittsburgh. "Things like giving out salt tablets, not allowing kids to drink water ... that was just ignorant. It certainly doesn't fit the definition of loving your kids.

"Now that I am a parent, I completely understand concerns about injuries and concussions. It's definitely a friendlier game for kids, and that's the bottom line."

The four-week preseason practices lack the urgency of past years because coaches now are permitted 10 contact days with players in June and July. Some are spent in team camps and 7-on-7 passing drills.

"The way the game is structured now, most of the players are at least somewhat involved year-round and you don't have to spend the preseason trying to figure out who your players are and where they're going to play," Dublin Coffman coach Mark Crabtree said. "They're already training in the offseason, and they're expected to come to camp in shape."

Crabtree said when he an assistant under coach Bob Jacoby at DeSales in the mid-1990s, the staff made a concerted effort to limit hitting "because we were beating each other up in practice," and switched their focus to technique, individual skills and execution.

Randy Baughman, who, beginning his 39th season at Licking Valley is the dean of central Ohio coaches, said the enormous changes in the game are mostly for the better.

"Everyone used to line up in a tight formation and try to overpower opponents in the trenches," he said. "The game now is played out in the open, in space, and has created the opportunity for more high-speed collisions. Fortunately, we're all trying to be more conscious of kids' health."

For Watterson third-year coach Brian Kennedy, times have certainly changed since he was a defensive lineman at Watterson and Southern Methodist University in the 1990s.

"The game is all about execution now, and practices are more focused on routes, run-throughs and schemes with various position coaches (rather) than going out and hitting each other for five hours straight," he said. "We're even teaching rugby tackling methods now, like Ohio State does."

Starting his 29th season with a fifth team, Bexley coach Mike Golden said the prep game has evolved from a physical grind to a more cerebral challenge.

"There's a lot more mental preparation and teaching going on," he said. "As an old-timer, I have some conflicting views about some of the changes going on, especially regarding the physicality of the game. But, let's face it, (participation) numbers are down at a lot of schools and you consciously tone things down at practice because you can't afford to get anybody hurt. It's a tightrope walk."

On that subject, some would argue that the new rules and methods have made players softer. Several coaches conceded that there's a fine line to that.

"Football is a violent, physical game, and the idea of practice is to prepare kids to be mentally and physically tougher than their opponent when game day comes," Hartings said. "I like most of the changes made to the game relative to safety, but I'd have to say that the aspect of physicality in the game has been compromised to some degree."

Franks bristled at the suggestion that the game has been sissified to an extent.

"These kids are just as tough today as they've ever been," he said. "I think we're just coaching them better and smarter."

Baughman says discipline is more a matter of mind than body.

"Kids will work just as hard today as they did 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "As a coach, you just have to be a little more creative in keeping their attention and keeping their competitive juices flowing. They've got a lot of other things going on, and you have to make the game attractive to them. Playing a more wide-open style of game is part of that."

Little by little, the game has drifted away from the militaristic and often conservative approach used by coaches such as Woody Hayes, Paul "Bear" Bryant and even Graham.

"The game mirrored the military for a long time and two-a-days were like Marine Corps boot camps, where you tried to chase the weak ones off," Crabtree said. "Kids can take away a lot of positive life lessons playing football. Call it what you want, but I want my kids to enjoy football."

sblackledge@dispatch.com

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