Fall camp presents a repetitious grind for players. Freshmen are trying to impress coaches while absorbing a playbook the size and density of a Shakespearean novel. Veterans are refining their craft while fighting to maintain depth chart positioning. However, there are a few select practice sessions that simply mean more. Offensive and defensive schematic installations are nearing completion by now. Saturday marks the first in a series of scrimmages with personnel (Depth chart) and redshirt ramifications.
“Scrimmage” is a broad term that has numerous meanings and outcome expectations. These practice sessions are intended to simulate real game like scenarios which test resolve, intensity, and composure, all of which will provide Mark Stoops a situational awareness benchmark of where his team stands following nearly two weeks of practice. Let’s take a look a different types of scrimmages:
Thud vs. Live Tackling
*THUD-Ball carriers/receivers/quarterbacks can be hit in the upper body, but not tackled to the ground by defensive players.
New NCAA practice rules stress player wellbeing which means lesser full-contact activities. Some think that reduced practice contact hurts the game. Others (like me) feel as if it is the intelligent approach for preparation and evaluation. In applicable football terms, the majority of day to day drills are not “live” or intended for the ball carrier to be taken to the ground. For example, when Benny Snell breaks the line of scrimmage he is not allowed to be taken to the ground nor is he hit in the lower body. This precaution is intended to prevent injuries. Another example is when Garrett Johnson catches a slip screen the play is whistled dead when initial contact from a defender is made; this concept is called “Thud.” Thud can be at times misleading in relation to productivity as it does not account for YAC (Yards after catch) or (Yards after contact). Remember, football is a violent sport, not a contact sport as it is often described.
Saturday’s scrimmage is likely going to involve live tackling which mimics the same framework of a typical football game. Again using Benny Snell as an example, it was the first full scrimmage a year ago when he began to show flashes of being a special player. Snell’s forte is breaking or running through arm tackles. This trait can only be displayed in full-contact football and is irrelevant in “Thud.” Receivers that have impressed early on in camp may not be as sharp due to the threat of live contact following or during a catch. Conversely, defensive players that are described as “having a nose for the football” or physical in nature usually shine in live scrimmages. Pads will be popping. Noticeable differences in the speed of the game will be apparent for the freshmen. There will be newcomers that will excel. However, some rookies will appear to be “swimming” (uncertain/tentative) which was a term used by Eddie Gran earlier in the week. The first full scrimmage is also a time that coaches can observe veteran player development as well as advancements in its strength and conditioning program.
Scripted Vs. Free Scrimmage
Scrimmage is a broad term. In reality there are several different types of conditions that can be manufactured on the field. The head coach maintains the control mechanism that dictates which type of scrimmage the Cats will participate in on any given day. When offensive and defensive coordinators synchronize play calls in order to observe their units in certain schemes or tendencies is called a scripted scrimmage. Example; if offensive coordinator Eddie Gran wants to evaluate his quarterback’s reaction to a blitz with man coverage then defensive coordinator Matt House will have a blitz called on that specific play. If House wants to see his defense become more seasoned against the Run/Pass option, then Gran will have that play scripted to give the defense that particular look.
Free scrimmages provide a more realistic, game-like approach. Coordinators spontaneously call plays much like they do on game days. In addition, down and distance scenarios are natural; meaning the chains (Down and distance) move following each play. These settings are intended to rehearse communication between the sideline to the huddle, prepare for extended drives, and measures continuity. Free scrimmages also help to rehearse hand/arm signals, substitution patterns, when to and when not to call timeout, and stress clock management.
Situational scrimmages are more frequent and specialize in specific game-like situations. This can include goal line, 2-point conversion, red-zone, 1st and 10, and 2-minute drives just to name a few. Goal line scrimmage periods are normally scheduled towards the end of practice when fatigue is rearing its ugly head. Situational scrimmages are best utilized as a surprise portion of practice. For example, Mark Stoops can begin a 2-minute drive scrimmage in the middle of another practice drill which familiarizes his players to change of possession/pace situations that frequently take place on game day. Practice schedule predictability can lead to complacency; thus change of pace enhances player focus.
Earlier in the post I referred to the upcoming scrimmage as the first “Separation Saturday.” The meaning of that term refers to this weekend’s practice as a critical measuring stick for personnel decisions. As the opener gets closer, practice repetitions become an invaluable commodity and given to those that are expected to play against Southern Miss. Take the receiver competition as an example. Currently several pass catchers are getting an equal number of snaps in practice. “Several” will be whittled down to a 2/3-deep after Saturday. But, competition is far from over and will run through the remainder of camp. So, those that are on the edge of earning a spot in the rotation will have fewer chances to impress Lamar Thomas.
While scoring and preventing touchdowns are the primary objectives in the game of football, Saturday’s focus will also be directed towards one-on-one developments. This especially applies to the 2nd and 3rd team units. Execution at this stage is raw but talent and ability to make plays remain obvious. Mark Stoops will be looking for playmakers regardless of the play’s outcome which can become sloppy with reserves on the field. Receivers vs. defensive backs will be under a microscope. Same can be said of pass rushers vs. offensive linemen, run stoppers against inside blockers, and so forth.
The SEC limits the number of players on the sideline at 70. Non-conference games have no limitations. So, special teams positions are filled with starters and roster players that are fighting to be included on the travel team. Live special teams scrimmages can be risky in regards to injuries. Special teams coordinator Dean Hood will be closely evaluating his punters. Returning starter Grant McKinniss is battling with grad-transfer Matt Panton. Panton’s 2016 averages were better than McKinniss’ struggles a year ago. He specializes in rugby style kicks as well as having a high success rate of punts that land inside the 10-yard line. A particular observation will be directed towards defensive players that can contribute on coverage teams. Thus, a solid scrimmage on Saturday as a reserve player on defense can lead to a roster spot and a job on special teams.
What does all this mean?
Nerves will play a role on Saturday as the event’s importance is principal. The need to impress coaches is paramount. Mark Stoops will have a better feel for his team after the Cats “get after it” for a couple hours. In summary, the first full scrimmage will be Separation Saturday.