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Monday, January 22, 2007

Developing First-Year Players

Tom Lemming and Bobby Burton - Spend more time discussing teenage boys than Tiger Beat magazine.
With the recruiting season winding down, many fans are busy penciling several of Nebraska’s verbal commitments into starting spots or key reserve roles come 2007. While I could write endlessly on why this is such a terrible idea, I will instead focus on a few key reasons why these recruiting junkies might want to temper their expectations. First they can look at Nebraska’s recent track record of utilizing first-year players. If they do, they will see that much has been made of the coaching staff’s apparent reluctance to play some of its younger talent. I actually touched on this issue briefly during the season, but concluded even then that the coaching staff probably had a better feel for the development of its underclassmen. Perhaps you will too after reading this.

It is important to note that while coaches often want (or need) their first-year players (particularly high-profile recruits) to contribute to their team’s success, in most instances first year players encounter too many obstacles, which must be overcome for them to make a significant contribution. In his book, Finding the Winning Edge, Bill Walsh highlights several of these obstacles, including - a lack of physical maturity, whether a player is prone to injuries, the fact that he is in “survival mode” during Fall camp, his possible lack of focus, the lack of attention he receives in Fall camp, and the major changes in his lifestyle.

Both fans and coaches need to consider the fact that most first-year players are still maturing physically. Many fans lose sight of this when an 18-year-old athlete with a muscular physique is described as a “boy in a man’s body”, or a “physical specimen”. The truth is, however, that even if a player is described s the prototypical physical specimen, that athlete may have difficulty adapting to the physical demands of Fall camp and the upcoming extended season (i.e., 12-14 games when you factor in conference championship and bowl games).

A first-year player lacking the physical maturity of an upperclassman can lead to several possible problems. Bill Walsh states that, “all factors considered, a first-year player is more likely to suffer a muscle pull than a veteran player”. Many new players participating in their first Fall camp may expend more energy than is necessary, while they learn what being a college football player involves. In addition, these players often do not have a complete appreciation for the value of using the team’s athletic training staff over the course of a long, arduous season the way veteran players do.

Another issue that may affect a first-year player is that during Fall camp, such a player often feels like he is in somewhat of a survival mode. This attitude may limit his focus to a point where he is just concentrating on getting through each “new” task (e.g., moving to a new city, reporting to Fall camp, starting school, surviving two-a-days, dealing with the substantial increase in media attention he receives, etc.). The player’s resulting mental fatigue may also limit his ability to concentrate well in team meetings. As a result, he may occasionally seem confused or appear unable to grasp and retain essential material.

The development of incoming freshmen is also affected by the fact that they normally receive less attention than returning players once two-a-days have concluded. Two-a-days provide an environment where the coaching staff can address the inexperience and the lack of preparation of the team’s first-year players. The coaching staff will often have low expectations for the performance of incoming freshmen during two-a-days, and the opinions the staff develops of them in this environment are often based solely on the athleticism of each player. The remainder of Fall camp and practices during the regular season are typically focused on preparing the entire team for the season. During this time the patience and tolerance of the coaching staff for the typical mistakes and learning difficulties of first-year players may be diminished.

In reality, it is unrealistic for a coach or a fan to expect a first-year player to experience much improvement as a result of practice during his freshman season. Too much is happening during the regular season for coaches or teammates to provide much in the way of detailed coaching to a second-line back-up player. In addition, a first-year player who is not ready to be thrust into a starting role, may only have a minimal sense of urgency to learn. As a result, Bill Walsh points out that a first-year player ‘s skills and level of preparedness may actually erode during the course of a season. Consequently, most of the development of first-year players occurs during the off-season and the subsequent Fall camp.

The best coaches and fans should hope for a player in his first year of Division I football involves the team establishing a specific role for him. By earning an active role on the field as a pass-rush specialist, a special teams player, or an extra receiver in a 3-or-4-receiver formation, a first-year player gains a measure of self-respect because his contribution to the team has been identified and isolated. Through establishing his role on the team and taking pride in the fact that he is contributing in a tangible way, a first-year player can achieve a sense of control in his football life. Not only is he able to earn his keep, he is also able to acquire the acceptance of his teammates.

So perhaps you can keep this information in mind come next Fall. Try to think rationally and logically when wondering why some 4-star prep phenom spends most of his first year on the bench. Consider long and hard the obstacles this 18-year-old is facing before labeling his freshman year as “a disappointment”. Stop thinking of these players as instant superstars and come instead to view them as “building blocks,” who could become the core of a successful organization. And finally, trust that the coaches will do everything possible to ensure that the skills and talents of each player on the roster are developed, refined, and utilized in an appropriate way.