Spring football is upon us, with a handful of FBS teams already holding workouts and the rest of them getting started in the next month or so. It's a somewhat exciting respite from a cold, football-less, six-month stretch, and it's also a unique quirk of the sport.
Spring ball seems simple, with players suiting up as the weather gets nicer and coming together with their coaches for the first time in a new season. But spring practices are the result of a complicated web of scheduling, NCAA regulations and individual program preferences.
Here's a rundown on how it all works.
1. The NCAA has strict rules for spring practices
Teams get a maximum of 15 spring practice days, including the intra-squad game that typically caps a spring slate. This doesn't include sessions when players are limited to the film room or the weight room. Everything has to take place within a 34-day window, but spring break and exam days don't automatically count toward that. So some schools spread spring practices over a month and a half.
Teams are allowed to have practices over their schools' spring breaks. Currently, there's no geographic restriction, which is why Jim Harbaugh was able to take Michigan to Bradenton, Florida, for practices last year. But in response, the Power 5 conferences instituted a ban on off-campus vacation practices, and that goes into effect before 2018. Harbaugh's going to work around this as much as he can, including by taking Michigan to Rome this spring, before the ban is active.
Only 12 of a team's 15 practices can have contact, and the first two must be non-contact. Of those 12, only eight can involve full-fledged tackling. Of those eight, only three can devote more than half their time to 11-on-11 scrimmaging, and the spring game counts as one of those three. So teams only get two pure practices of 11-on-11 scrimmaging.
Practices aren't supposed to run for more than four hours per day or 20 hours per week, so coaches need to apportion time wisely. If they don't, it's a compliance violation.
2. Few incoming freshmen participate
Programs are a little shorter than usual on bodies for spring practices. Players who are finishing up their high schooling don't participate, of course, but neither do most freshmen.
Spring practices take place during the school year, so the majority of the players in freshman classes are still wrapping up high school. The only freshmen who can participate are early enrollees. These are students who graduated early and have already been admitted.
Some schools have five or more early enrollees. Some don't have any. And their participation can extend beyond spring ball; Alabama was able to have an early enrollee mimic Clemson's star quarterback ahead of the National Championship two seasons ago.
3. It's a media event, but the story's the same for every school
Typically, spring practices (save for the spring game) are closed to the public. They're often open to the media, however, and they've become the only real press extravaganza in the many months between Signing Day and conference media days.
There's no better time for media to pontificate about a team's future. Here's a boilerplate compilation of the kinds of things a beat reporter might pick up on:
- Making Music: Despite three starters being kicked off the team for attempting to pawn stolen French horns from the music department, the coaching staff feels it is a blessing in disguise, and they're ready to move forward now that the malcontents are out of the program.
- The team's all-conference middle linebacker might have torn his ACL chasing the Red Bull car for a free Sugar Free, but this is just an opportunity for one of the unheralded redshirt freshmen to step up.
- The coaching staff is genuinely excited for its first season in the Big East.
- Practice What You Preach: Coach has cut his midmorning McGriddle binge down to once a week, and it really shows. He must have lost at least two or three pounds already, which has to go a long way toward inspiring the veterans.
- Coach may be cutting back, but it's hard to say no to the hushpuppies at Dale's. Maybe someone else should be running two-a-days.
Other important story lines to keep an eye on: the new strength coach is a total badass, the new QBs coach has a substantial résumé, the defensive coordinator is really letting the boys get after it, and the facility expansion is a state-of-the-art overhaul.
4. Schedules are all over the place
Duke started its "spring" football on Feb. 3 this year. Old Dominion doesn't start until April 1.
There's little obvious geographic rhyme or reasoning to when teams get started. It would make sense for teams in warmer climates to start sooner, but that doesn't explain Illinois starting on Feb. 14 and Arizona State on March 13.
5. People care more about spring game attendance than anything else
Attendance is free at a lot of schools, but there's no substitute for the pride and excitement engendered by having a massive crowd to watch teams scrimmage amongst themselves.
The games are somewhat silly. Stats are often kept unofficially, quarterbacks usually wear non-contact jerseys, and linemen might try to run with the ball. The scoring systems are also really weird, and everyone has to find a way to care about whether Red or White won.
Yet some fanbases take this stuff very seriously, and so do their their programs. Ohio State announced a 100,000-person crowd last year, believed to be a record. The national high mark most years goes to either the Buckeyes or Alabama. Emphasis is on announced, because there's really no way to check any of this.