Column: Spring practice is better now than never

It took me a week after the 42-16 loss to Louisville but I did find a happy thought, one I’d like to share with you as we look to the future.

Let me take you back to mid-March, when college football suspended spring football practice and spring games. Think about the questions we were all asking back then: Will there be a 2020 college football season? And if so how many games will be played? 

My happy thought is this: We played. Mike Norvell has had three months and six games to evaluate his players and coaching staff in action and as a result now has a clear picture of what this team is and what it is not. 

Even if we don’t get to play another game, Norvell now has what he didn’t have after the gates to the spring practice fields were locked. He now has seen his players and coaches in action and can begin the process of weeding his fields and planting future harvests.

 The bye week comes at a perfect time, a time for evaluation and adjustment.

“This is a time to really reflect and evaluate on who we are,” Norvell said of the bye week. “Things that guys are confident in doing, things that guys have executed well, and things that might be critical within all phases of our units, offense, defense, special teams we have to get cleaned up. Whether it is a concept, whether it is an adjustment, just the different variations of what guys are being asked to do, so it is more second nature to their reactions within the course of the game.”

Every practice has been a blessing, every game a revelation.

If you are having trouble wrapping your head around my happy thought, ask yourself this question:  Where would this program be right now if our first-year head coach did not have the benefit of either spring practice or fall games? Would he know the depth of the issues needing to be addressed?

I think not. I think he, and we, would be in limbo. We’d still be delusional about the state of the program, the level of talent and the issues on this team.

My happy thought is thank goodness the games are being played. Norvell needed this season to get a clear picture of what he has in order to make critical decisions on which positions have players and which positions need to be top priority for recruiting and the portal. And that’s true for his coaching staff too.

I know. I know. If the 2020 season had not been played we would have been spared the pain of brutal losses at Miami and Louisville. Fair point. However, I’ll take a short-term pain for a long-term gain. Let me rephrase that: I’ll take a short-term loss, even painful losses, if it leads to quicker long-term gains. 

I’ve been thinking about the discussions we were having with former coaches and subscribers on the Osceola’s virtual Happy Hours back in the spring and summer. The thought was that the loss of spring practice would have a greater impact on a program with a first-year head coach – who needs the spring to install his offense and defense and evaluate his players in their scheme – than losing spring would have on more-established programs. 

I remember this question back then: Which would be worse for a first-year program without spring practice, no football or bad football?

I remember laughing at the suggestion: “FSU fans will be understanding.” I remember thinking, or even saying, “FSU fans will never lower their expectations when those spears run out on Bobby Bowden Field.” The first impression of the Mike Norvell era will be based on what they see. Unfortunately, the message boards critical of coaches and players are proving that point, which is short sighted.

Where FSU goes from here

While special teams and the offense, especially the running game, has shown improvement, the defense has been a bitter disappointment except for the first half of the North Carolina game. The defense, which most of us expected to be the team’s strength, has been awful and is of grave concern for all.

We’re all asking why?

Is it coaches or players, attitude, scheme or talent?

Everyone is looking for answers. Here’s my perspective: Losing spring practice hurt many defenses more profoundly than we were willing to embrace. You see Alabama and Florida, two historically good defenses, ranked even below FSU. Sure, established defenses like Georgia and Clemson are performing at high levels but when you look across college football you see offense is ahead of defense and particularly this year. 

Why? Spring is the time coaches install the fundamentals of tackling so players injured in the process of full contact drills, which are necessary to coach up good tackling habits, have the summer to recover. You hate to take those risks in fall camp for fear of losing a player for weeks due to concussion protocols. While the art and science of tackling has been in decline since the NCAA limited the number of contact days, and increased the time players who get their “bell rung” must be held out of practice, I would argue losing spring hurt defense more than offense. 

You see Norvell stole some time during this past bye week to catch up on some of those fundamentals, like blocking and tackling, that he didn’t have the opportunity to establish in the spring.

The loss of spring hurt FSU’s defense even more than established programs because defensive coordinator Adam Fuller, who came with Norvell from Memphis, had to assemble a whole new staff here at FSU who had never worked with each other before. The coaching staff needed spring practices to install communication, schemes, fits and coverages. And they needed to record film they could have used this summer to evaluate and to iron out inevitable problems. Since they didn’t have spring, they are only now finding those wrinkles that must be ironed out while trying to prepare for a different opponent and offensive scheme each week.

You may be thinking I’m making excuses for the coaches but I would argue I’m offering reasons. As you know in your business or family, you have to identify reasons for problems in order to fix ‘em. For FSU to get better it needs to use this fall practice and games as if it were spring practice in order to solidify this staff. Norvell says it, and I believe it. FSU must concern itself with FSU right now more than with the next opponent.

Measure twice, cut once

It’s human nature to always be evaluating those around you and I’m sure Norvell has been doing so with his coaches as well as his players. Who fits and who doesn’t? Can he meet with his coaches and iron out any wrinkles on the staff? While we aren’t privy to what he’s saying and doing behind closed doors, one of the more-compelling aspects of Norvell’s resume was the success he had with the coaches he hired at Memphis.

While it’s hard to watch, we should remember Norvell sees more than we see and has a paycheck that is entirely dependent on improvement. He’s in the staff meetings and knows what the plan is. He sees the practices and the film rooms and knows what is, or is not, being taught or learned. He sees the effort exerted and has the data from GPS devices for verification. While it’s not likely he’ll alter his standards, he knows all too well that these players and coaches missed spring practice and the offseason strength and conditioning program.

If I were in his shoes, and I know you are thankful I am not, I would have used this season, and especially this past bye week, to evaluate the first six games in order to make tough decision on who he can rely upon to build his program moving forward. We have seen Norvell playing numerous fresh faces on the participation charts, so he knows who is grading well, learning, leading and providing the best chance now and in the future. 

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