Practice injuries are twice as likely in spring as they are in
fall. What are coaches doing to protect players?
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
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 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
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
Bad Spring Breaks
Some key players are on their way back from spring injuries
suffered in past years, while others face rehab after being
knocked out in spring practice this year. Here's a look.
Making a Comeback
Lee Evans (above), Wisconsin, senior, WR
After setting Big Ten record with 1,545 receiving yards as junior
in 2001, blew out left knee in last year's spring game and
redshirted for 2002 season. Remained on sidelines as precaution
this month for Badgers' Red and White game; expected to be back
at full strength for senior season.
Frank Gore, Miami, sophomore, TB
Ahead of Willis McGahee on depth chart last spring before tearing
his right ACL; projected as Hurricanes' starter and potential
Heisman candidate this fall. Had several impressive practices but
sat out final spring game with sore shoulder.
Albert Hollis, Georgia, sophomore, RB
One of nation's top recruits in 2000, he injured his knee in
spring practice two years ago and hasn't played since. Went
through this spring wearing no-contact green jersey; status
Randy Boxill, Rutgers, freshman, OL
Signed to play at Miami but didn't make SATs and sat out fall
2001; enrolled in Rutgers following semester, only to suffer torn
ACL after being leg-whipped in spring ball; second on the depth
Adimchinobe Echemaandu, Cal, senior, TB
Tore his ACL last spring, shortly after winning starting job.
Though Bears coach Jeff Tedford says position is "wide open,"
Echemaandu made strong case this spring, carrying nine times for
51 yards in Blue-Gold game.
Injured This Spring
Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma, freshman, LB
Blew out right knee on April 12--his 20th birthday--while playing
on weak side in annual Red-White game. Team doctors fear he tore
his ACL, serious blow to an already depleted linebacking corps.
Jermyn Chester, Clemson, senior, OL
Expected to start at left guard, but college football career is
now over after he tore left ACL and underwent reconstructive
surgery in March. Had torn right ACL twice, missed entire 1999
season after surgery on that knee.
Kelvin Morris, Clemson, senior, S
Starter underwent surgery last month to repair damaged cartilage
in left knee, sustained while making interception during March
drills. Tigers expect to know in a month if he'll be available
Perry Patterson, Syracuse, freshman, QB
Supposed to challenge shaky incumbent R.J. Anderson but had to
undergo reconstructive surgery on right knee after injuring it
during warmups in April. Blew out same knee in high school.
Jamal Pittman, Ole Miss, freshman, RB
Bruising 6'2", 230-pounder was expected to compete for starting
job but tore right ACL during noncontact drills in March.