This year, the end of summer came sooner than usual for most of college football. As one might expect, not everyone is happy about that.
If they haven't already begun training, most programs will be taking the field for training camp Monday, before the calendar flips to August. The early start comes as an unintended consequence of new NCAA rules banning teams from holding two-a-day practice sessions in the name of student-athlete welfare. The number of practices each team is allowed to hold stayed steady at 29, but after being stripped of the power to squeeze a couple of them into one day, most schools have extended the usual four-week training camps to five this season.
"I don't like it," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "... You have to bring them in earlier to get in all of your practices. It's five solid weeks now from when they report to when they play. That's a long time. The NFL at least breaks things up with the preseason games, but five weeks without playing a game, that's a grind. You've got to be really careful how you structure it and make sure you keep it fresh."
Coaches seem to overwhelmingly share Whittingham's disappointment in the rule change made this spring. While eliminating two-a-day practices could theoretically reduce injuries, in practice the new method might be more of a step backward than forward where student-athlete health and free time are concerned. The NCAA is currently grappling with how to best address both of these issues.
August is the most injury-riddled month of the year, NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline told the Associated Press earlier this month. More than half of football's concussions take place in preseason camp, and a larger-than-average number of overuse- and cardio stress-related injuries occur during the dog days of camp. Hainline said there was preliminary data and "consensus in the room" that two-a-days were a major culprit in creating health issues among student-athletes.
Players and coaches using anecdotal evidence aren't so sure. The days of grueling, four-hour double sessions in full pads are long gone. If teams used two-a-days at all in recent years, they typically served as extended teaching sessions and walk-throughs with players wearing fewer pads, and featured little to no contact.
"Honestly, the two-a-days were easier than the one-a-days," Minnesota running back Rodney Smith said.
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Kansas State's Bill Snyder -- as old-school of a combination as there is in college football -- both expressed some concerns about getting rid of the summer rite of passage, but not for the stereotypical reasons. Ferentz said in the spring that his players were largely against the change because it shortened summer. Snyder told reporters that the Wildcats won't use all 29 of their practices this year because if they did, there would be no break between summer school and training camp for players to leave campus and visit their families.
"Lengthening the training camp and having people start earlier is the exact opposite of what we've been doing in every other area of these guys' lives," Stanford's David Shaw said. "Creating less time, not creating more time, with the sport."
The change creates new challenges for coaches as well. As Whittingham acknowledged, keeping players engaged for five weeks is not easy. Several coaches said they planned to rework the pace of their camps to keep things from going stale, ensuring their teams are mentally fresh heading into their season openers.
"It's not even taking away summer that's the concern; it's just the length of training camp," said Rutgers second-year coach Chris Ash. "It's just a long time. At a day and age when player safety is at the forefront of what we do, lengthening training camp, I think, goes against that. We've got do deal with it, but I hope it's something the NCAA goes back and revisits next year and that we have more dialogue and discussion about."
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the coaches would have a chance to voice their opinions. He said the rules were made with student welfare in mind, and the blowback is just a part of working out the kinks in an active legislative process.
"Everybody is concerned about health and welfare and time demands. It's a balancing act," Delany said. "It's compromise. It's toothpaste. When you push this part here, it has an effect over here."
The compromise might come through shrinking the overall number of practices that teams can hold before starting the season. The number currently allowed, 29, is not the result of a consensus that it takes that many practices to properly prepare a team for the season. Some coaches believe that it's more than needed, given the amount of time players spend honing their craft during the summer. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said his teams spend far less time simply getting into shape than they did a generation ago, when he was playing quarterback at Louisville.
"Nowadays the kids are here all summer long working out and in school," Brohm said. "When I played, I never worked that hard. I don't know if I could. We haven't had two-a-days for the last few years."
Brohm, who coached at Western Kentucky before this season, said his teams didn't use all 29 of their practices. He plans to keep the same four-week schedule for his first camp at Purdue. Most coaches are wary of giving an opponent any type of edge by using less than the maximum time they're allotted leading up to the season, but they largely agree that they would be fine with fewer practices if everyone else was held to the same limit.
Holding fewer practices -- rather than simply adding more time to complete the same number of workouts, reps and hits -- seems like a better way to address both the health and time-on-task concerns for all involved in college football. It appears the rules might be headed in that direction, even if takes a little longer than necessary to get there.