With the first games of the 2015 football season being played Saturday, a strange period of preseason practice is winding down. Preparation has been a challenge on several fronts for every football team in Minnesota, and time has been of the essence.
The normal three weeks of practice before the first game has been trimmed to two weeks this year. That was done because the Prep Bowl will be played two weeks earlier than usual; the University of Minnesota has home football games scheduled Nov. 21 and 28, so the stadium is available for Prep Bowl games only on Nov. 13-14 instead of the normal post-Thanksgiving timetable.
Preseason practice and Prep Bowl schedules will return to normal in 2016 when the Prep Bowl moves to its new home, the Vikings new stadium. But for now, getting ready for the season has been a test for coaches and players.
Adding to the changes are new regulations that limit practice time and contact during practice. Teams cannot hold two-a-day practices on consecutive days, two hours of rest are required between two-a-day workouts, and the amount of time teams can employ full-contact drills are limited. One major result for many teams has been more walk-through drills than in previous years.
One of the big matchups Saturday has Hutchinson playing at Becker; Becker is the defending Class 4A state champion and Hutchinson reached the 4A state semifinals. Becker coach Dwight Lundeen -- who started the Bulldogs football program 46 years ago – said preparations have indeed been rushed this season.
“Everything is getting jammed into a shorter amount of time, even team pictures needed to be taken the first day of practice so they can print the programs by the first game,” he said. “We have less X and O time so we’re going into the first game with less plays and defensive calls. But it’s fair and the same for everyone.”
Bloomington Jefferson coach Tim Carlson, whose team will play at Cooper on Saturday, expressed the sentiments of many coaches regarding the shortened prep time before Week 1.
“Not only do we have just two weeks to prepare, we have less time within those two weeks with the limit on two practices a day,” Carlson said. “There is no way we can be as prepared as we have in the past. We will be limited on offense, and defense and special teams will not be as polished. Schools that have players play both ways are at a greater disadvantage.”
Blaine coach Tom Develice said the Bengals have simplified their preparation for Saturday’s game at Wayzata.
“Instead of teaching our schemes against multiple offenses and multiple defenses, we are really concentrating on the specific schemes that our game one opponent will most likely run,” he said. “The biggest challenge is evaluating our talent without a scrimmage and with very limited contact during the short two weeks.”
Gene Teigland, coach of the New Life Academy/St. Croix Prep/Bethany/Liberty
cooperative team, said seven-on-seven work during the summer helped his players prepare for the season.
“Also the playbook is getting trimmed a little for the first couple of weeks,” he said.
“I am concerned about tackling,” said Tiegland, whose team will play at St. Croix Lutheran on Saturday. “I’ve never been big on doing a lot of hitting and we already use bags, but the shortened weeks concern me more than the daily limit. Younger guys need more reps so when the stress of the game comes they don’t fall back into their bad habits and are using proper technique. We are doing a tackling circuit every practice to help alleviate this potential issue.”
Blaine’s Develice said he thinks the limited two-a-days and less contact in practice will work out well in the future.
“I think in a typical year, where you have three weeks to prepare, the changes in practice format is going to pay dividends with keeping players out for football,” he said. “Parents and players will like the idea that every other day there is only one practice, and more importantly there are limits to the amount of contact you can actually be exposed to each day.
“I think the hardest part is that this year we have that change and then also playing one week sooner. My only concern with playing one week earlier: is there a chance for increased injuries in game one? Players are not in game shape yet, the month of August is usually hot in Minnesota and with one less week players might still be making mental mistakes in games. We are trying to handle this by simplifying our schemes on offense and defense along with increasing conditioning in practice.”
Conversely, Jefferson’s Carlson said he is worried about the limits on contact in preparing for games.
“We will have no contact the Thursday and Friday before our game,” he said. “Games are two and a half hours long and full of contact. In a notice we received from the MSHSL, it told us we can teach tackling, blocking, getting off blocks -- in other words ‘contact’ -- without having them actually do it. That's like sitting a 16-year-old in a car, telling him how it should work, but not letting him practice. Then send the kid on a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Or explain how to play a piano, but you just can't touch the keys before the recital. We are going to use our time the best we can to make sure our players are prepared and safe.”
For some schools, the new limits on practice and contact are not an issue.
“There is not really a huge impact on our program,” said Albany coach Mike Kleinschmidt, whose Huskies will play host to Fergus Falls in Week 1. “Over the last 60-plus years, we've always had only one-a-day practices and never have live contact.”
Lundeen said, “We do very little hitting in practice anyway, so walk-through practices are procedures that we have done for years. We will be physically ready to play our first game.”
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