On a splendidly sunny Saturday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel peered down from the press box and wondered what the hell was happening in his spring game. Though most of the Buckeyes' starters had long since retired to the sidelines, junior receiver/ cornerback Chris Gamble played on, snagging a 19-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Troy Smith early in the third quarter. The play thrilled the 57,200 diehards who'd paid $5 each to watch the defending national champions. It provided Gamble's gray squad with a 13-point advantage in a contest played for bragging rights among the players. What it gave Tressel was a momentary shock.
Gamble ranks among the nation's most electrifying players, and Tressel, mindful of possible injury, had told his coaches not to use him in the second half. "I'm looking down from the radio box and he's catching a touchdown," said Tressel later with a laugh. "I guess I need to make sure my coaches have more discipline." In fact, it's becoming harder to gauge what players of Gamble's stature gain from spring ball. "Spring football is critical for young guys to get good fundamental training," says Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. "I don't know how much it helps a player who's been around awhile."
NCAA studies reveal that players are twice as likely to get hurt during spring practice as they are in fall drills. There are too many tales like that of former Tennessee wideout Peerless Price, who broke his right fibula in a scrimmage in the spring of 1997, during his sophomore year, when an ambitious walk-on tackled him after a touchdown catch. This spring has brought more injuries (chart). Iowa junior running back Jermelle Lewis snapped his left anterior cruciate ligament. Virginia Tech senior defensive end Jim Davis, part of the Hokies' three-end rotation, tore his pectoral muscle.
Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez didn't lose any players this spring, and for that he's counting his blessings. Last year he watched star wideout Lee Evans tear his left ACL on his third play of the spring game. The injury, which required two operations, sidelined Evans for the 2002 season. Without Evans, the Badgers finished a disappointing 7-6, winning just two of their eight Big Ten games.
Alvarez says the injury "made me more cautious." This year he held Evans out of all practices and mandated no contact for All-Big Ten running back Anthony Davis, All-America free safety Jim Leonhard and senior linebacker Jeff Mack. He also didn't allow tackling while starters played in the first quarter of the spring game.
"Spring is a developmental time," Alvarez says. "You love it as a coach because you're not game-planning, and you can spend time teaching kids. But we always try to be smart. The players I kept out of live contact have played a lot, and they've had some injuries. I don't need to see if they can play."
When schools were permitted 95 scholarships (the maximum until 1992), Penn State coach Joe Paterno used to excuse fifth-year seniors from spring ball. Today's numbers make that difficult. The NCAA allows 85 football scholarships and only 15 spring practices (12 with contact) in 29 days. With classroom loads forcing players to miss occasional practices, it's not uncommon to see 60 or fewer players available on a given day. "You want your good players working against other good players, but that's harder now," Bradley says. "I don't know how much an older guy improves when he's practicing against a receiver who can't run routes or a quarterback who can't throw accurately."
Auburn running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown rarely did more than work on pass-blocking and footwork drills this spring, while Ohio State senior defensive tackle Tim Anderson took only 15% to 20% of the snaps. "A lot of coaches limit reps for older guys and make them pseudo-coaches during the spring," says Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. "They have them do noncontact workouts because it protects them, and it allows less experienced players to get some reps."
Spring ball has undeniable benefits. It helps players build chemistry and allows coaches to get an early read on how they'll fill the gaps left by graduation. Says Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, "The big issue is being wise and not putting your more established players at risk more than needed. Spring practice is about players, not plays, and particularly about younger players."
But those younger players, too, are vulnerable. In April, Syracuse lost highly regarded freshman quarterback Perry Patterson for the season when he blew out his knee during drills. "Unfortunately, football is a violent game," says Orangemen offensive coordinator George DeLeone. "If you don't scrimmage or have high-intensity drills, I don't know how you get your team ready."