With an increased knowledge of the factors leading to brain injuries in football, committees ranging from the professional ranks to recreational departments have buckled down by enforcing new rules in order to create a safer environment for athletes.
The GHSA threw its hat into the ring of controversy this year by enacting new practice regulations involving the duration in which high school football players can experience contact during practices.
Beginning this year, teams can have full contact 45 minutes per day and 135 minutes each week during the preseason, and when the season starts, those numbers drop to 30 minutes per day and 90 minutes each week.
The kicker? Teams cannot practice full-contact drills in three consecutive days.
“What football coach does like that idea?” asked Peach County head coach Chad Campbell. “But it’s something that was coming down the pipeline. But that’s today’s world; that’s what you have to live with.”
Few -- if any -- coaches are proponents of the new rule, but the level of adjustment depends on the coach’s teaching philosophy. For Barney Hester and the players at Howard, the rule will have little effect on their practice regimen.
“I’ve never really been a hitting coach as far when practice starts,” Hester said. “I’m more concerned about my defense, when we’re working defense -- team defense -- my defense having their feet in place and understanding what’s happening on the other side of the ball than I am seeing how hard they can hit somebody at practice.”
But for coaches Warner Robins’ Bryan Way, the adjustment period will be a difficult road to travel. The rules limit the manner in which Way can hold his practices.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a proponent of it,” Way said with a laugh. “Like everything, you have to learn to adapt to changes and rules and everything else that goes along with it. I’ve been doing it so long that we’re kind of set in our ways.”
As a coach who will be entering his 32nd year on the sidelines, Way has to alter practice scheduling from some of the roots that are engraved in him as a leader of his team.
“We like the way we practiced in the past, the schedule we had set up,” Way said. “So, I guess more than anything, it’s causing me to change some of the things I’ve always done or grown up doing.”
Approaching his 23rd year as a coach, Campbell holds the same sentiment. Specifically, the two coaches strongly believe less time utilized in contact will lead to poor tackling on Friday nights -- especially early in the year.
“I do think to begin with early in the season you’ll see a difference in the quality of tackling especially,” Way said. “It’s hard to practice tackling without tackling.”
Campbell alluded to the excess of missed tackles at the NFL and college level, noting some of the rule changes made at those respective levels of football.
“Tackling has gotten worse over the last five to eight years,” Campbell said. “Teams are going to suffer because of the rule change.”
But Hester envisions the change playing a small role in practices. He said his teams have “never been” a full contact squad.
“From a practice standpoint, it’s not a whole lot different than what we have done in the past,” Hester said. “You can still do all of that stuff as long as you have dummies. If you have dummies out there, you can pretty much do all the stuff you want to do.”
Hester’s lone concern lies in whether the players will be physically ready to play come Friday.
“If you don’t get enough of that stuff in, just like from the heat standpoint, if you don’t get enough in practice in a controlled type of environment, when you turn loose full-speed on Friday nights ... that concerns me about the kids,” he said.
Howard starting strong safety Quintarious Jackson and starting middle linebacker Sean Walker said contact will not hamper their play on the field. While Jackson would “like a little more contact,” Hester utilizes more practice time teaching players rather than letting them hit.
“We’ve been breaking off into groups; we do that like all the time. Every practice we break off into groups, talking about what we’re going to do, talking about how we’re going to execute,” Jackson said. “But when we go team, that’s really when we start hitting.”
Walker sees no downside to the practice regulations, as he will still be able to see the same amount of reps. He called practices “nothing different.”
“When you have as good of a coach as Barney Hester, it’s not a big deal,” Walker said.
While the coaches differ on whether the allotted time suffices for an individual practice -- Hester has no qualms while Way and Campbell don’t see it as enough -- all three voiced concerns about the latter part of the rule, which does not permit teams more than two consecutive days of contact practice.
On normal game weeks, teams have four days of practice before playing on Friday night, but Thursday is rarely used as a high-level contact day. If teams hit on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday would be off limits, leaving Thursday as the next alternative.
“I don’t know many people that hit on Thursday, so that really cuts you down to two days of 30 minutes during the week,” Way said. “So it’s really 60 minutes (rather than the allotted 90).”
In the past, Way used Tuesdays as a day in which his team did most of its live work. But with only 30 minutes, he will have to adjust his scheduling.
“We’re going to have to spread that out over two days somehow, and we’re not really sure how we’ll do it when we get to that time of the year,” Way said. “That will be a big change for us, that’s for sure.”
The rule change comes into fruition in order to maintain the health of the football players. Jackson says it will prevent “a lot of injuries,” and Campbell holds the same belief. But Hester and Way reserve their judgments for now.
“That remains to be seen,” Hester said. “I really truly don’t know.”
And while Way said you “don’t have to be a rocket scientist” to realize fewer blows will likely lead to fewer injuries, he waits to see the data in the future before confidently saying the change will be effective from a safety perspective.
“I think probably in the long run it will,” Way said. “It’s hard to tell because it’s been fairly recently that the studies have started with the concussion effects and those types of things later down the line in a player’s life. We don’t have all the data in yet, and we don’t know how long it’s going to be before all of the data is collected, so it’s kind of hard to tell.”
In the status quo, the new regulations will affect different programs in different ways. According to the coaches, some of their players don’t even know there are new rules in place; they just want to play football. But football, at its roots, is changing in an unnecessary way in Campbell’s eyes.
“Football is a contact sport; we’re getting to where it’s going to be close to touch,” he said.
But while Campbell dislikes the rules, he understands the goal the association is trying to push toward: the greater good of the athletes. And he agrees that the safety is of utmost importance.
“The GHSA really is looking out for the safety of the kids,” Campbell said. “The football committee, we sat down a few months ago. Do we like it as football coaches? No, we don’t, but we understand the change. It’s looking out for the best of the kids.”