With the season’s kickoff just a few weeks away, college football teams are deep in camp preparing for their first opponents. AthleticDirectorU sits down with a number of coaches and an industry insider to discuss what teams are doing to get their players ready for their opening match-ups and the long season ahead.
What are the most important aspects of preseason camp for your program? How much are you preparing for week 1 vs what may come much later?
Mark Fabish (Offensive Coordinator – Columbia University) – Not surprisingly, our primary focus in preseason camp is laying a strong foundation for the upcoming season that will allow our team to deal with anything that might happen. Not just from a football perspective, but just as importantly a team building standpoint. Moreover, we have to work to catch our first-year players up with the veterans who have the experience of at minimum a preseason, off-season, as well as 12 spring practices. There will be a solid two weeks prior to classes beginning that our players will be 100% football, from the time they wake up until the time they are back at their dorms in the evening they will be either meeting, watching film, practicing, spending time in the training room or lifting weights. We have a phenomenal opportunity to not only work on the X’s and O’s aspect of preparing for the season, but also on building upon the culture that had been established during the time prior to going home for their summer break.
Adam Fuller (Defensive Coordinator – Marshall University) – There are a number of things we focus on in camp, the most important of which is setting a mindset within our players that everything they do is connected to their eventual success (or lack thereof). From how they wake up, to getting to practice on time, staying engaged throughout the day, what they eat and how they take care of their body, how they respond to coaching, and how they treat people on and off the field are all contributing factors to their improvement. We constantly reinforce that preparation and practice habits create success when the real test comes. Moreover, the preseason is an opportunity for us to define roles and set standards for each member of the team and identify who our best most consistent players are and put a plan in place that allows them to ensure they are growing personally while also helping the team is getting better as the season goes on.
Eric Koehler (Co-Offensive Coordinator – Miami Ohio University) – There are three primary goals that we enter camp with: 1) have a comprehensive evaluation of our players, especially those that might be in a position battle, 2) create tangible goals for both the month of August and the 13+ weeks of the season that will follow it, and 3) create an identity for our offense and defense (i.e. installing a scheme that will see us through the entire season, regardless of what happens to our personnel).
Football is an incredibly complicated sport, with each position responsible for its own set of unique responsibilities. You have to first make sure everyone knows what they’re doing from an individualized standpoint before you can get them on the same page to work together as an actual unit. If you rush the x’s and o’s while overlooking the fundamentals, your foundation won’t be there, and it will be extremely costly if you have to pivot in the middle of the season. Camp is for figuring out how to make sure that what we’re doing on Day 1 is leading us to where we want to be on Day 100.
Nicole Auerbach (Senior Writer – The Athletic) – Certainly, there’s the physical preparation — making sure guys are ready for the season from a conditioning, strength and agility standpoint. There’s also the mental prep of understanding and executing the playbook. But what I ultimately think is most important is making sure you have the right chemistry across the board. Yes, that includes quarterbacks and receivers, the offensive line as a unit, etc., but also the locker room as a whole. If players understand why and how the depth chart is shaping up the way it is, I think you can avoid some internal issues related to playing time. It’s never easy for a guy to find out he won’t be playing as much as he wants, but if there’s enough communication from the coaches and camaraderie with teammates, it won’t be as bad and ideally not cancerous to the locker room.
From the programs I’ve been around during camp, it’s usually divided up pretty simply. First half of camp is usually that team’s own system and principles, and the second half or final week of camp is devoted to the Week 1 opponent. (An exception: Usually teams that have a triple-option opponent on their schedule in the first month will spend a little bit of time preparing for that, too.)
How do you filter out the noise of the media, internal department talk, social media, etc during camp and once the season gets under way?
Fabish – With success comes attention and being the only college or pro football team that plays on the island of Manhattan, anytime we flirt with success the media shows up very quickly. While this is an awesome opportunity to bring attention to our program and student-athletes, we also have to remind them that it is a result of the hard work and focus that they have put in, and if they want it to keep happening, they have to continue producing results. That being said, we also make it very clear to the team that the most important people when it comes to our program are the people they see every day – their teammates, coaches, support staff and administrators. They are the ONLY ones who know the inner workings of what is going on within our team and the opinions and comments of those outside of that inner circle have no impact on us achieving our goals.
Fuller – In the world of college football, there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to organizing, motivating, developing and other things that go along with improving your team day in and day out. There is so much information and media out there now, and very little of it offers anything positive in terms of getting our players better. Hence why we tell our team that nobody is as invested in their personal and group well-being more than the people sitting in the room with them today. The noise on the outside is something we do not control, nor should we try to.
A perfect example of that is with our first-year players, whose role on the team changes from high school to college. They go from being “the guy,” to just another role player, and thus we need to make sure our relationships with them are strong enough that we can help them develop through it. When the conversations happen outside of the building and the blame game starts on whether they should be getting more playing time and that maybe they need to transfer, that can really interfere with an 18-19-year old’s ability to focus on what’s in front of him. It’s our jobs to make sure they know that we always have their best interest in mind, even though everyone on the outside are/ trying to make them think differently.
Koehler – You have to have a strong belief in how you do things as a program and remember that the noise, good or bad, is there because people care. The noise isn’t what creates problems, how people react to it does. You can’t love it when it’s good and get negative when it’s bad… you have to remember that it’s all the same and that it will always be there. If you focus on your players and your program and set an example by being the same coach every day regardless of what others might be saying about you, it won’t be an issue. Moreover, you have to build a relationship with the players that extends beyond football… if you don’t, they’ll believe everything on Google and Twitter before they believe you.
Auerbach – A lot of times, teams try to get out in front of that stuff. If you know you have a Heisman Trophy-caliber guy — Ed Oliver, Trace McSorley, Will Grier, etc. — you can manage the media requests and space them out throughout the slow time of the year, which is spring and early summer. That helps. You can do the same with TV promos and internal promotion stuff, stockpile it for later. I will say it’s much harder to filter out noise when huge stories break on the eve of or during camp. Like, at Ohio State and Maryland right now, I highly doubt they’re actually able to block anything out right now — which is OK. Those are big, important stories. It’s easier for a team to rally together because there’s a significant injury or they believe they’ve been snubbed in a preseason poll. It’s not easy to ignore an actual scandal. And it’s our job in the media, as a proxy for the public, to keep asking about it when we can. So even if you close camp to media access, this story isn’t going to go away.
How much time is spent on the psychological preparation for the challenges of competition?
Fabish – As long as your foundation is strong, your core values are communicated consistently, and at every opportunity you create a competitive environment, then when the challenges of competition present themselves your team will be prepared. You must work to put your players in as many game like scenarios as you can to simulate the stress that may show up when it actually comes time to line up against someone in a different colored jersey. Furthermore, you need consistent messaging throughout the season, not showing up every pregame with some new way to motivate the team. Come Friday the work is done – the team doesn’t need a fiery talk, they need reinforcement that they are prepared and a reminder of the core values that they hang their hat on will see them through anything that might happen the next day.
Fuller – I think it is important to be up front and honest with your team. We want to start fast, play as hard as we can for 60 minutes and finish strong. Unexpected things will come up in the course of each game and we must be direct about dealing with these obstacles. Football is a highly strategic game, and because of the start-stop nature of play, if players are not prepared psychologically to deal with everything that might happen in a game – good or bad – things can snow ball out of control. If your quarterback throws an interception or your wide receiver drops a pass, they need to assess quickly why it happened and move on – a ‘next play’ mentality is critical. Be confident in your training and preparation, know you put in the time to develop the skills and muscle memory necessary to be successful, and stay focused on executing on what is directly in front of you.
Koehler – You can have the best coaches and schemes in the world, but if your players aren’t capable of learning and retaining all of it, and then executing when it comes down to game time, than none of it matters. Even if they know exactly what they need to do when they step on to that field but fold as soon as they the face any sort of adversity, everything you’ve worked on the entire summer goes out the window. We work tirelessly to ensure that our student-athletes know that we care a great deal about their well-being and are going to invest into building them both physically and mentally so that they can withstand the rigors of what happens on the field and off of it.
Auerbach – A lot, and it’s growing across all sports. These days, I’m surprised if a team doesn’t have at least one full-time sports psychologist. Nowadays, athletic programs are even starting to hire regular psychologists/mental coaches to talk to student-athletes about anxiety, depression, pressures related to being in the spotlight or social media, etc. which I also think is a great growing trend.
In light of student-athlete suicides, like Tyler Hilinski’s at Washington State, athletics departments are realizing that it’s more crucial than ever to have staffers around to help players with the mental aspects of sports and also being 18-22. Moreover, some conferences are taking charge themselves – the America East has a working group tasked with creating recommendations for the league and its member schools to support and combat student-athlete mental health challenges.