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Practice Time Limits And The Decisions They Portend

As you may have heard, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is accused of running roughshod over the NCAA's practice-time regulations, which allot specific limits on things like coach-supervised practices, workouts, Sunday activities, etc.  This blog is not going to go into depth into the allegations, because it's just not my area, but you can check out MGoBlog, which has articles herehere, and here for all the details.  I am sure many other fine articles will be written for your perusal at a later time.  

I'm more interested in talking about practice limitations in general, and what they mean to the average college football team.  In short, teams get 20 hours of practice per week, certain mandatory workout time, and a few other requirements, and everything else has to be "voluntary".

First, "voluntary-schmoluntary".  It's only voluntary if you aren't that interested in actually playing.  The way I understand it, and I say this without attribution to any authority, is that an athlete cannot be punished for failure to attend these voluntary activities, but if Person A does the extra film study or the extra workouts and therefore becomes a better player than Person B, naturally the coaches can play Person A ahead of Person B.  Or they can just decide Person A is a "better leader" than Person B.

But what I really want to touch on is the fact that limited practice time (and there are limits even when you throw in the "voluntary" stuff; these guys still have to go to class and do enough school work to maintain eligibility, so it's not football 24/7) means coaches have to strike a balance between two competing ideas, both of which sound really good on paper when looked at in isolation, until you realize that one has to be sacrificed for the other.  

I'm talking about the level of sophistication of the playbook.  


Realize that college football teams have limited practice time.  With limited practice time, there are a limited number of plays that can be run.  Let us say, just to pick a number out of the sky, that the typical college football team can run 5,000 practice plays before its first game.  This is a hard limit, established by the limitations put on players.  No matter what you do, you just can't squeeze more than 5,000 plays in.  Do you practice a handful of plays hundreds of times each to master each one?  Or do you try to install multiple packages and lots of tricky ideas to try to give you maximum flexibility to try anything during a game?

You can't do both.  If you do the first, you may find that the opposing team has figured out how to stop you and you don't have the flexibility to try anything different.  If you try the second, you take away reps from your base offense, and you may find you don't run anything at all particularly well.

Striking that balance is a difficult call, and one every offensive and every defensive coach must make.  Surprisingly, the poster child for keeping it simple and practicing a handful of plays over and over and over again is the swashbuckler-coach, Mike Leach.  Chris Brown at SmartFootball has been all over this particular topic.  The Texas Tech airraid offense may look complicated, but it's actually only a dozen or so plays run over and over again, each with multiple reads and options within them.  Each play is fairly complicated in what the receivers and the quarterback have to read and do, but there are only a few of them, and they run them until they are very good at them.

Gary Crowton takes a different approach.  Crowton wants to keep a defense confused by throwing multiple looks and multiple packages.  Using two different styles of quarterback?  Check.  Running anything from 3-tight end to 5-wide?  Check.  Throw a little spread option in there?  Check.  Pistol formation?  Check.  I-formation power football?  Check.  Wildcat?  Check.  Basically every offense Crowton sees and likes, he will borrow a little bit from and use when he has the right personnel.

The result can be spectacularly good when it catches the defense off guard.  It can also look like an unholy mess (see our version of the Wildcat last year when Richard Murphy took the snap).  This is because you have that set number of practice plays, and you have to distribute them between the plays you want to run.  This is why I recently advocated against the suggestion of using Rueben Randle as another wildcat quarterback.  The reason is because we already have a wildcat quarterback in Shepard, and giving Randle reps at that position would take reps away from Shepard, with insufficient benefit to warrant it.

So keep this in mind when you see complex offenses and defenses (the concepts apply there too).  It's not necessarily a good thing.