Spring-fall football model in 2021 could squeeze strength programs

As strength coach Clete McLeod walks through his plan for South Dakota football, every season has its purpose.

The winter is about laying a foundation. Slower lifts. Not a ton of movement. “Not really hammering the body,” McLeod said. “We’re putting a lot of meat down, but their central nervous system isn’t getting as beat up as when you are going 90 miles an hour playing the game.”

The spring is a pivot point. The emphasis becomes the development of speed and power. The intensity ramps up into the summer, switching the focus to movement and “expressible athleticism” that can be used on the field.

“The summer, we’re mashing the pedal down,” he said.

For some, it’s just workouts. For a Division I strength coach, it’s careful construction, piece by piece. From winter to spring. Spring to summer. Summer to the season.

That has always been the progression, until a pandemic shelved the fall. Now the question being asked of D-I strength coaches is whether they can prime football players’ bodies for seasons in the spring and then the fall. The 20-year veteran McLeod, who has been everywhere from Southern Illinois to Nebraska, would have serious concerns about training for two seasons in 2021.

“In a perfect world, a guy doesn’t get banged up. But there’s still a hangover after a season, that a guy has to get on the other side of before you can start really training again,” McLeod said. “I’m not thrilled with the idea. … That next season is going to be such a load, mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Instead of training to peak at one time of year, the fall, athletes will have to peak twice. And that second time comes after weeks of crashing into each other, full speed, all while balancing life and classes. It’s a lot to ask.

Indiana football coach Tom Allen said plainly he had “a lot of concerns” about a spring season, a day before the Big Ten halted fall sports. If football is moved to the spring, Allen said, college football will have to get creative. Purdue’s Jeff Brohm has tried, drawing up a proposal for 2021 spring and fall seasons, eight- and 10-game slates with a three-month break from mid-April to mid-July.

Ask a strength coach, and they will say Brohm’s plan is feasible. But they will also admit it’s a challenge.

“In some ways, we try to integrate and routinely throw in things that challenge the norm and make the athletes uncomfortable,” said Ron McKeefery, the head strength coach at Fresno State. “This is the ultimate in terms of being uncomfortable and a challenge.”

The goals don’t change. As always, strength programs will value injury prevention and performance enhancement. It’s just that their window to achieve results will tighten.

Brett Bartholomew, who has trained athletes across the spectrum, including college and pro football players, mixed martial artists, and even personnel from the U.S. Special Forces, understands the narrow line programs will have to walk between seasons.

“You are really at an increased risk of soft tissue injuries, if people aren’t careful. And these seemingly small soft tissue injuries, even if they are acute, can turn into chronic injuries, if prolonged. That’s the issue,” Bartholomew said. “These condensed seasons, if not managed carefully, can take wear and tear that started as acute and make it something chronic or higher in magnitude.”

The first question is how many players will come out of a spring season quote-unquote “healthy,” preferably without injuries that require prolonged rehab. Even “healthy” players have bumps and bruises that will need time to properly heal.

Bartholomew estimates there should be four to six weeks of active recovery following a season. That means athletes should be exercising, but not overly stressing the muscles they use in-season. Repetitive stress is a constant worry, even more so in a spring-fall scenario.

With competitive athletes, just getting them to throttle down isn’t easy. Bartholomew has had clients finish a season and immediately train for a half-marathon. Or enroll in Orangetheory fitness classes. If a spring season is played, athletes will have to be intentional about recovery.

He uses the analogy of sandpaper against a hand.

“Just keep rubbing it and rubbing it, over time … it will bleed,” Bartholomew said. “That’s indicative of what happens when constant repetitive stress is incurred by the body. Contrast that if we rubbed our hand against that sandpaper a little bit. Stopped. A little bit more. Stopped. Maybe don’t do it for a day or two. A little bit more. You develop a callus instead.

“One is more resilient from a tissue and adaptive standpoint. The other is more indicative of overuse and rawness.”

Old school “lift ’em hard” coaches are doomed to fail in this scenario. It’s the strength coaches who understand the art and science of the craft, paying close attention to individual athletes’ minds and bodies, that will have the most success.

“The dosage is the poison,” Bartholomew said. “If we are managing our training well, in terms of volume and intensity in the weight room, but the football coach is super nervous and trying to get ahead of things, so they are running a lot and doing things way more than they should, and these guys aren’t recovering, it doesn’t matter what we are doing.

“Just like a battlefield, you have to have these generals and these different factions talking. In a condensed timeline, communication is key.”

McLeod, for instance, loves to train his freshmen four times a week in the fall, fast-tracking development for a South Dakota program that doesn’t attract the thoroughbreds of the FBS level. But depending on the health of his roster, he may have to reduce the frequency of in-season fall workouts.

McKeefery, who has worked at Eastern Michigan and Tennessee, as well as with the Cincinnati Bengals, is thinking about how to ramp up conditioning levels. Before, athletes eased into shape in the summer. They ran six 110-meter runs one week, then seven the next. Then eight.

Now, they may have to quickly jump from six to nine. Vintage conditioning drills like gassers may need to be integrated back into football practices. Athletes will feel it.

“I don’t think it’s too far fetched to do both, to have a spring season and turn around and get ready for a fall season,” McKeefery said. “I think you’ll have enough time to get your players healthy, you’ll be able to get them back to being able to move efficiently. You’re just going to miss the true development time. But I guess that’s all relative because everyone is going to be missing that time.”

Fresno State is unique, though, because its players have not returned to campus since the pandemic escalated in March. There were no summer workouts for the Bulldog program, led by former IU offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer. It’s what university leaders believed was safe. But for a young team, and a new staff, it was time lost to develop players.

The hope is Fresno State’s players will get some time to work with the strength staff this fall. If a spring season is their aiming point, these next few months are critical.

“The sooner there’s a plan in place, everybody can adapt and overcome. That’s what we’ve always done,” McKeefery said. “But the uncertainty is not just creating rushed plans. It also creates anxiety amongst the players and the staff. And stress is stress. Whether that’s stress by barbell, or stress by relationships, or stress by the unknown, the body reacts the same way a lot of times.”

Monday, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, an FCS league with the likes of Grambling State and Texas Southern, put out a plan for a seven-game slate this spring. It calls for six conference games and one non-conference outing. The season would begin Feb. 27 and end with a conference title game on May 1. Along with Brohm’s plan, this could be a template for FBS conferences.

McLeod, also at an FCS school, is still awaiting a plan from the Missouri Valley. Plus, the FCS ordinarily has a postseason playoff, and South Dakota, if successful, could be looking at an even sharper turnaround from spring to fall, regardless.

A veteran strength coach, McLeod believes he can overcome. He trusts his experience. But concerns remain.

“The more successful we are in the spring, the more we’re robbing from our ability to recover for the fall,” McLeod said. “I want to say ‘Oh, of course, we can do this fancy thing.’ But there’s nothing that’s going to take the place of rest.”

5 comments

  1. Anyone for touch or flag football? Or should they just go to a virtual football game? My as well go Virtual pre and post game football game day show as well.

  2. One of the most successful FB coaches in college FB history, Urban Meyer recently offered his opinion that there is no way two college FB seasons should be held in one calendar year. He does not believe FB players’ bodies can recover, even with a shortened (i.e., ten games) seasons. So that suggests that universities would be willing to increase the risk of players getting more serious injuries, which could affect their ability to play in the NFL. Sounds like that idea is not going to fly unless the number of games in both the spring and fall seasons are reduced even further.

    And what’s going to change between now and January/February? There’s not going to be a viable vaccine for COVID-19 available by then? The virus is not going to suddenly disappear or weaken. The only thing that will be different by then is that the election will have been determined.

    1. I fully trust the advice of a coach who kept Zach Smith in a protective bubble and hired an Indiana coach who berated injured players. The man deeply cares…He truly deeply cares.

  3. From Mike Schumann published in The Dailey Hoosier: “The Big Ten finds itself exiled to an island of hypocrisy and absurdity”

    Ouch! Good article raises some excellent points.

  4. You sort of lose credibility as a sports authority website when you name yourself the “Dailey” Hoosier. Just sayin’….

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