A common trope in any football movie is the brutal practices, the constant crushing hits, players lined up to crash into one another over and over.
That’s a thing of the past.
“It’s absolutely not the barbaric stuff you see in them,” Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.
On July 28, the NCAA formally recommended college football programs reduce live contact during in-season practices from two per week to one. It is not a mandate, but part of a shift away from contact-heavy practices. Two years ago, it recommended a maximum of two.
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During fall camp, NCAA rules allow four contact practices per week, with a total maximum of 12.
“For probably seven, eight years now, we’ve almost never had them during the season, and I don’t know many at all who have two these days,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... We won’t go to the max in camp, either. We have a good amount of live stuff, but we fit it into a day, like (Thursday’s scrimmage), not a few over the course of a week.”
The Pac-12 Conference placed a mandate in 2013 limiting live contact, while the Ivy League voted this year to eliminate it completely during in-season practices. Often, coaches say tackling can be rusty early in the season, but rarely is the reduction in contact to blame.
“It’s a fine line,” Avalos said. “... A lot of people are trying to find out what is the right way, but what you truly need to practice, the hardest part, is to put yourself in the right position to make a tackle, not the (impact).”
For Boise State, pads still crack, and players will run full speed until they get their hands on a teammate, or sometimes wrap up a ball carrier without taking him to the ground. Out of pads, or even in them in non-live contact scenarios, the team stresses “practicing like a pro” and avoiding injuries that could result in hitting the turf.
“The two things we’re very, very vocal about is effort and staying off the ground,” Avalos said.
A vast majority of the players are eager any time they get in full pads and have some contact. But they also try to keep it in perspective.
“I don’t feel like there isn’t enough. You definitely go into the season acclimated,” junior tight end Alec Dhaenens said. “... We want to be a physical team, but you don’t want to overdo it, so you have to take everything you can from when you have it.”
Said senior running back Devan Demas: “You need to practice getting hit. ... If you go into the first game and you haven’t been hit a lot, that first hit’s gonna surprise you.”
A primary motivation for the NCAA’s shifting stance has been head injuries. In its July decision, it noted a 14-fold increase in concussive impacts in full-pad practices, as opposed to half-pad or helmet-only practices. Harsin has embraced the difference between today’s rules and those 20 years ago, when he played at Boise State.
“I think it’s common sense,” Harsin said. “I’ve had three straight days of live contact; I know how long it takes to recover from that. We didn’t have the same sort of conditioning, so guys come in more ready.
“Some of those injuries they’re trying to cut down on, it works, but a lot still can happen whether you have pads on or not, so you have to be smart either way.”
With less contact, but more focus on fundamentals, there is more hope players will tackle smarter, be better prepared to take hits and fewer serious injuries.
“It’s for the better,” Avalos said.