Change is coming to college football, and this time, the modifications are on the field.
While the last several weeks have been spent on transfer legislation and athlete compensation changes, college sports leaders are poised to make an adjustment between the lines: Preseason camp is getting a facelift.
In response to results from a five-year concussion study released earlier this spring, an NCAA legislative committee is deeply exploring ways to make the annual August camp a safer place, officials told Sports Illustrated in interviews this week. The Football Oversight Committee (FOC), college football’s highest policy-making group, plans to present recommendations soon that will significantly change one of football’s most grueling traditions.
Committee members are considering a reduction of full-padded camp practices (from 21 to eight), the complete abolishment of collision exercises (such as the “Oklahoma” drill) and limiting a team to two scrimmages per camp (lowered from three and a half).
The changes stem from a study published in February that was funded by the NCAA and Department of Defense. The study tracked head exposures in six Division I college football teams from 2015 to '19, finding that 72% of concussions occurred during practice and nearly 50% happened in preseason practice, despite it representing just one-fifth of the football season. Total head impacts in the preseason occurred at twice the rate of the regular season. More than 650 players from Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Wisconsin, UCLA, Air Force and Army were involved in the study.
The study leaves college administrators with no choice but to again adjust college football’s preseason camp policies, says Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director and the chair of the FOC.
“The data is the data,” Lyons told SI. “We’re going to have to make changes. We have to reduce the exposure that we’re having with concussions in the preseason practice time period.”
Though the changes seem significant, they shouldn’t impact the majority of coaches in a dramatic way. Results from an American Football Coaches Association survey this spring showed that many coaches already adhere to such camp practices, says Todd Berry, the AFCA executive director.
The potential new rules have coaches mainly concerned in one area: preparing their young players for high-speed college-level game contact.
“Our coaches don’t want concussions. We don’t go out there and just beat each other up,” Berry says. “There’s no value in that, but there does need to be enough contact to allow players to prepare their bodies for contact or else you’re asking for more injuries on the field. What coaches are concerned about is being able to evaluate a younger player and teach them how to prepare for contact.”
The changes are far from official. A subgroup of the FOC has spent the last several weeks ironing out details and will present the changes to the full committee at its meeting Thursday. Afterward, the new policies will be sent to member schools for feedback before the FOC officially recommends the legislation to the NCAA Division I Council, which must in turn OK the changes at its meeting on May 19.
The new rules are the latest way the NCAA is attempting to relax what was once known as the most excruciating and laborious experience in football. For years now, fall camp has seen its teeth removed in the name of safety. In 2017, the NCAA banned two-a-days, and in 2018, the governing body reduced the number of preseason practices from 29 to 25.
The latest impending modifications keep both the number of practices (25) over the same amount of days (29) but adjust the type of practices coaches can hold.
In the latest working model, a 25-practice camp must include at least nine non-contact, padless practices (helmets only). That’s up from the current rule of two mandatory padless practices, which are part of an acclimatization period at the beginning of each camp. No more than eight practices can feature full pads and full contact, up from 21 under the current rule.
Lyons refers to the working model as 9-8-8: a minimum of nine padless practices, eight practices in shells (helmets and shoulder pads) and a maximum of eight practices in full pads with full contact. In shells, players cannot be tackled to the ground, under current rules.
The working model would also reduce scrimmages from three and a half to two; would permit a maximum of 90 minutes of full tackling in any one single padded practice; and would prohibit more than two consecutive full-padded practices, requiring coaches to wedge in non-contact and shell practices.
Lyons left the door ajar to future changes in the model.
“Is it going to be the perfect model? No,” Lyons says, “but it’s not the end all be all. We’re in a short time frame here to make these changes. Does the camp in 2022 look different? It could.”
One thing that may never return to college football practices: the archaic head-knocking, one-on-one collision drills. That includes the Oklahoma drill, Board drill and Bull in the Ring. The prohibition on these drills would be year round, barring the exercises completely from college football.
The changes are along similar lines to what the NFL and its players union has done. Their collective bargaining agreement limits padded practices and these collision drills.
“A lot of our coaches have already done away with the drills,” Berry says. “I don’t know anybody that has done Bull in the Ring since the 1980s.”
No other changes are expected to camp. The committee rejected a request from the SEC to expand camp by six days to allow for more days off. According to a letter obtained by SI and sent to the FOC, the league wanted to hold 25 practices over 35 days, lengthening camp to spread out its full-contact practices.
Meanwhile, summer workouts will revert to the same protocols as years past, Lyons says, meaning the elimination of the two-week OTA-type workouts that football teams were allowed the last two weeks of last July.
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