This is the fifth in a series of ten articles on how high school football has changed over the last decade in the state of Alabama.
The ability to teach the game of football to your players has always been high on the list of priorities for a coaching staff. The best coaches are all outstanding teachers. But over the last decade how we teach and how we practice our game has changed. Some of that is due to the emphasis on the passing game. The AHSAA rules concerning practice have forced coaches to re examine their practice procedures. Players involved in other sports which takes more of their time than ever has also initiated some changes. Even adjustments that were created by Covid 19 protocals have caused coaches to take a different look at some of their practice philosophy.
The flexibility of today's AHSAA rules that have changed practice over the last10 years now allow coaches some alternatives that have replaced some of their strong beliefs from their early coaching and playing days.
One of the oldest and most sacred of high school football procedures had been spring practice. There had always been conflicts with spring sports and frustration about players missing because of those sports. Most Alabama high school football coaches still want spring practice and believe in it. However, their philosophy about this 10 day period has changed.
Some coaches embrace the pure fundamental aspect of spring ball. They love the drills, and feel free to get physical and teach the basics of the game. "We don't worry about the guys that may be missing because of other sports," a 6A coach commented. "Guys get to feel how much faster and stronger they are from the off season and I think it makes summer much better." One south Alabama coach said he just wanted to see the young guys and the new guys in live competition before the fall starts. "Then we can coach them all summer and make position changes if needed before the fall." One 6A coach said that he loves the video that he gets from spring practice. "The hours of film we get to dissect is really very valuable." One 7A assistant coach commented, "We feel it’s best for our guys and the recruiting process as it allows college coaches a chance to see them on our campus."
The new rule allowing teams that do not have spring ball to start practice a week earlier than normal is a popular one. Coaches like the flexibility. "I still do spring practice, but if our baseball team makes a deep playoff run, I like the option of just calling it off and starting a week earlier in the fall," a veteran coach said. Other schools have eliminated spring practice entirely. When spring was called off before the 2020 season due to Covid, some coaches realized that they were still prepared to play in the fall and spring ball might not have been as necessary as they had grown up believing. "The early start rule really helped us make that decision (eliminating spring practice) an easier one," one 4A defensive coordinator said. This can be especially true at smaller schools, where baseball and track athletes involved in playoffs and the state track meet often compose the majority of their skill players. "It can be hard to practice offense if you have no quarterbacks," one 3A coach commented.
The new 2 hour rule that allows coaches to work with individual athletes in small groups during the off season has been embraced by some 6A/7A coaches. "We love it, especially for our younger guys. We can work on fundamentals and teach them how we want them to practice," one north Alabama coach commented. Most use that rule as they approach spring, working with players after spring break. "The 2 hour rule is really a big school rule," one 2A coach said. "All of my coaches are busy with other sports, and the players are involved in those sports." More than one coach felt like it was all just too much football. "My coaches and players need some time off away from the game. We work out an hour a day at school and I believe that is plenty."
Coaches must be wise enough to determine what is good for their school, players and coaching staff. Just because there is a rule that says you can do this doesn't mean it will be beneficial in the long term for every football program. Player burnout is a real concern, especially athletes playing multiple sports.
Almost all coaches agree that today with all of the practice time available in shorts in June and July, they can generally get their teams conditioned and ready to play. Most schools work at least 3 days per week, alternating lifting with practicing and conditioning. Some go four days per week, especially in July. Most everyone works out in the morning. coming in at 8:00 am or earlier. Some even serve their players breakfast. Almost everyone takes off some time if not the whole week of the fourth of July.
The month of July has changed, with schools replacing days of workouts and practice with 7 on 7 competitions and OTAs with other schools. Not every coach loves the 7 on 7s, but most agree that getting to compete and condition is really valuable, especially for younger players. "I like to load up and take our guys to a 7 on 7 where we can compete against some teams we haven't seen before," said a 3A head coach. "Preferably, some teams with some college prospects. It gives our guys a pretty good idea of where they stand and can create some confidence." One 7A offensive coordinator says 7 on 7 is a big part of what they do on offense. "What we do in our system is based our ability to throw the football. We do three 7 on 7 competitions every summer which include a trip to Foley (our guys love this trip), and a one day trip out of state to the Atlanta area. It helps with timing and getting our quarterbacks and receivers together in a competitive setting."
What has become a favorite of most of the state's coaches is competing in an OTA (organized team activity) with another school or even multiple schools. Coaches like to get together with teams that just want to practice and get better and no one cares about winning that day. Schools may set up anywhere from 1 to 3 of those competitions. "I like to do my OTA with a coach I know well, someone who wants the same thing out of it that I do," one 4A coach said. "We script out every minute of the practice, and get to work on situations like 2 minute, end of the game, goal line, 3rd and long, etc." Most smaller school coaches agree that working in a competitive situation against another team can be invaluable in preparing for the season. "It's a great way to compete in a controlled environment and coach your guys," one central Alabama coach said. "We can work on offensive and defensive line technique and responsibility," one 7A head coach said. "We love the one on one competitions, the run fits for the linebackers and the running backs workjng on running to daylight."
An OTA is also a great way for coaches from different schools to get to know each other, and the players as well. Some will add an FCA component and have a booster club feed everyone at the end. It can be a great event for the players. One 5A coach laughed and said, "it's also a great way to find good assistant coaches. I like to just watch and scout out the young guys that are coaching their players hard, and how their kids respond to them."
One concern among almost all coaches is the number of days in full gear with live work that has dwindled with the rule changes and the early starting date with Week 0. There were schools last fall that played a game with only 5 or 6 days of actual live padded practices. This can be a real concern for teams that are young, especially at the 1A-3A level where school may dip down and play more 9th and even 8th graders. Have they had enough live tackling experience to tackle in a real varsity football game? "It effects tackling and conditioning the most," one north Alabama veteran coach said. Some feel better with the new early practice start date, but must give up the contact of spring practice. "We like the extra week better than spring practice," one 4A coach said. "We not only get the extra days in pads before the first game, but we love having that big scrimmage to help get us ready, to create excitement and to get the parents out to watch."
Two a days, once a staple of Alabama high school football, are all but gone. With all of the days in shorts teams can utilize in the summer and the concern with heat issues, coaches agree that there is just no longer a need.
Not all coaches have changed their practice beliefs. One successful veteran coach said he hasn't changed his philosophy since his playing days and early coaching jobs. "I've never been to a single 7 on 7 or OTA," he said. "I'm a little old fashioned and all we do in the summer is lift and run, but we do that hard! I want our kids to be excited for football in August and the last I checked those 7 on 7s don't count toward wins." He also added, "I probably scrimmage our guys more than most teams in pre season, but I believe that is how you learn to play and compete."
Once the season begins, most teams practice in shells on Monday, full gear on Tuesday, shells on Wednesday and shorts and helmets on Thursday. A few teams vary from that. Some schools do walk throughs only on Thursdays and don't even dress out. There are some teams that never go in full gear once the season begins, dressing in shells and shorts. Most of these are larger schools, but a few smaller schools do this in an effort to keep players fresh during the season. A two way player gets more reps in practices and playing time in a game and can get worn down and become more susceptible to injury. "A wise old coach once told me that you should plan for a 15 game season and not a 10 game season," one 4A coach said.
One thing that is disappearing from high school football practice in Alabama is end of practice conditioning. "With the way we practice and with the tempo we use, we believe that conditioning is not necessary," a Birmingham area offensive coordinator said. Another 6A head coach said, "We have cut back on the amount of conditioning we do and the amount of maximum effort drills as well. We want to be fresh on Friday night and to do so we need to work a .little smarter." He added, " We believe in quality over quantity." Smaller schools are left with a dilemma. Do they condition more because their players must play on both sides of the ball and special teams or should they cut back to help rest them for the game on Friday? One 3A coach said he still runs sprints at the end of practice, more as a toughness and confidence issue than conditioning. "We believe that it will help us win games in the fourth quarter and we sell our players on that fact."
Coaching staffs have also changed their verbage over the past few years. "We no longer talk about helmets and where to put your head," a 1A coach said. "We talk about keeping your face up." A 5A head coach said his defensive coaches are all on the same page with their terms, drills and how they teach striking a lick and tackling. "We don't do any one on one head up tackling at practice. Everything is at an angle and we never take anyone to the ground except on game nights."
So are today's coaches sacrificing toughness and tackling skills? One north Alabama head coach said it took him a while to adjust to the lack of live tackling at practice. "I know it hurts us at times, especially early in the season," he said. "But the trade off is less injuries and a better practice climate with the players. I have l had to learn to live with it."
One defensive coach of 40 plus years said that the explosion of the passing game changed his practice habits. "When I started coaching, it was all about being tough, playing technique and defending the option and the running game," he said. "Today, we spend a lot of time just lining up on all of those formations, adjusting coverage calls to them and dealing with tempo. There are all of these pass routes, RPOs and empty formations. We do a lot of team things now and a lot of walk throughs."
Alabama's high school coaches are okay with the rules surrounding practice, but there is one thing that several coaches said they would like to see. "It would be great if we could get one OTA with another school in pre season practice that we could do in pads," a veteran 4A coach said. "Other states have that and I believe it would be a great help to get our players ready for competition, especially our younger athletes."
Finally, there is no one right way to practice. Head coaches must decide what is best for their school. Understand liability, get some practice beliefs and sell them to your coaches and players. Always be searching for new and better procedures. "If there was a best way to practice," one Hall of Fame coach commented, "we wouldn't have all of these different ways to do it."