Area players put full gear on for the first time in practice last week and did so knowing the 2015 season is inching closer.
“They get a little more amped up, a little more excited,” South Warren coach Brandon Smith told the Daily News. “They start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Summer practice, summer camp is almost over.”
Aug. 1 marked the first day football teams could conduct practices in helmets and shoulder and lower body pads, per Kentucky High School Athletic Association rules.
Players had been allowed to start wearing helmets July 10 and shoulder pads July 22.
When teams were finally allowed to replace shorts with lower body pads, it marked one of the last checkpoints before high school football season begins. Kickoff for the first regular season games is Aug. 21.
“They were excited this morning when they came in and looked at the practice schedule and it said ‘full pads,’ ” Greenwood coach Chris Seabolt said after the Gators’ first full pad practice. “... The truth is our practice didn’t change a whole lot from Friday to today in terms of contact and things that we were doing. It’s just the idea of full pads ... that excited the players.”
Coaches face strict guidelines from the KHSAA in regards to contact, with measures designed to ensure player safety.
The state’s governing body follows guidelines put in place by the National Federation of State High School Associations that rates contact on a scale from zero (”Air”) to four (”Live Action”).
Coaches are supposed to gradually bring their teams along over the course of the summer from zero to four before the season begins.
“We’re not as used to having the pants on so it’s sort of like when you first put the helmet on,” Greenwood senior fullback Aaron Smith said. “It takes a few days to get accustomed to it.”
Even when full-padded practices are finally allowed, teams are limited to 90 minutes of level four contact per week if there’s a game at the end of that week.
The 90-minute rules are now in effect, as local teams are playing scrimmages this week.
“It just makes it more common sense to the athlete,” Bowling Green coach Kevin Wallace said. “It’s a high school sport with young people playing.
“The last thing you want to do is see young men get hurt. This is a game where you’re going to get bumps and bruises, but if we can prevent things of a catastrophic nature from occurring, then the rules are for the good.”
When new rules regarding contact were adopted by the KHSAA in April, commissioner Julian Tackett spoke of “the long-term sustainment of the sport as a viable participation opportunity throughout the state.”
Football safety concerns had “participation trending downward nationally,” Tackett said in a news release, and “much of that decline has been attributed to the recent increase in available information concerning concussions and the fear of many parent groups of allowing their children to become involved due to this data.”
Putting stricter guidelines on the amount of times teams can work in full pads has increased the need for efficiency in practices.
Rather than just lining players up against each other for tackling drills, coaches are looking for ways to get more out of those periods, Brandon Smith said.
“We don’t just line up nose to nose and hit each other,” he said. “Everything is some sort of technique and fundamental.
“It goes fast and some of those drills involve contact. I’m not big on the old ‘Oh, we’ve got to make them tougher. Let’s just line up and knock their heads together.’
“A lot of football has to do anyway with your feet and your hands and not as much the actual contact part.”
Even if rules allow players to be tackled and taken to the ground in certain practice situations, teams can be hesitant to allow that.
Wallace brought up two of his team’s standouts, running backs Jamale Carothers and Jacob Yates. Wallace said he doesn’t want important players like Carothers and Yates getting unnecessarily injured in practice when the Purples know they’ll need them in key games.
“I go back to thinking about watching Western (Kentucky’s) spring practice and the first half of spring practice when they had their (starters) in,” Wallace said. “It was all quick whistle.
“Leon (Allen) didn’t go to the ground and nobody touched (Brandon) Doughty. We’ve got to learn to practice like that.
“I think, for the most part, for the first two days we’ve done a good job of that. There are people that are high-level performers that we can’t easily replace.”
But for players that aren’t expected to be high-level performers, the switch to full pads can provide a chance to stand out and earn reps.
The opposite can also be true for players who looked good in offseason workouts or 7-on-7 drills, but not in a live action situation, Seabolt said.
“You see a lot of kids where you think, ‘Maybe they can help us,’ “ he said. “Then you begin to realize that maybe they’re half a season away or a whole season away.
“Then of course you always do have a couple of guys that, once you put the pads on, they’ll start standing out a little bit because they’re more physical-type players and they’ve been waiting to get the pads on to show it.”
Players who want to impress coaches and earn playing time for opening night now have less than two weeks to state their final cases.
Excitement is growing as the pads go on and players get closer to the chance to play in some real games, Brandon Smith said.
“They’re tired of going against themselves,” he said. “… They’re ready to move on to that next step.”