2019 Training Camp VIII: No Juice
So I have this Thing I Want To Talk About that I need to talk about before I talk about today's practice. If you know anything about me me, you know that all of my practice thoughts will be blocked by the Thing I Want To Talk About until I talk about it. So let's talk about it.
It was very quiet at practice today. There was just no energy - no juice. Let me go back to 2010 to explain what that means.
You might remember that 2009 was a disastrous season. Vegas had our over/under at either 7.5 or 8 wins... we won three games. Ron Zook kept his job but his coordinators went out the door. Camp Rantoul 2010 would be a brand new offense and a brand new defense.
And training camp 2010 was loud. So loud. Partly because new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino never stopped yelling, but also partly because Vic Koenning emphasized noise. You might remember clips of him from spring ball in 2010 getting all over his defense for dancing after some pass broken up downfield. He wanted the guys on the sideline to celebrate the great play, not the guy who made the play.
I remember running to my car one night to record some audio because I wanted to talk about the noise on the defensive sideline. Someone would make a big play, and the defense would celebrate, and the offense would get angry, and then the defense would make another big play, and the defensive sideline would get louder and louder, and then the offense would strike back with a big play and the offensive sideline would erupt. Practice was intense. And so very loud.
Today was just the opposite of that. Maybe it's just hot and it's day six and they're tired and camp is dragging and there wasn't much to get up about. But it was so quiet. Big plays by teammates barely registered on the sidelines.
If I was a coach (and believe me, there are many reasons why I'm not), it's one of the only things I'd care about. I'd be so embarrassingly similar to Pat Fitzgerald and PJ Fleck that I'd hate myself. Yeah, "row the boat" is corny and yeah, Fitzee's "we do things differently" drives me insane, but they both obviously care a lot about this side of things, running from one end of the field to the other at the start of the fourth quarter and whatnot. Sideline intensity would be the #1 thing for me (besides, you know, good schemes and great recruits).
Why? Because football is an emotional game. It's a repetitive game, and with anything repetitive, the effort can drop off significantly when it feels mundane. First defensive series of the game, you're flying as soon as the ball is snapped and playing right at 99%. Middle of the third quarter, and you're down by 10, you can find yourself going at 55% every play. And it's the job of the guy on the sideline to get that player back up to 99%.
It's how I've always seen momentum in football games. A team is down 21, and the get a touchdown, and the opponent fumbles the kickoff, and the crowd is fired up, and the lifeless offense suddenly has life and scores again, and then once it's cut to 7 the defense comes out completely on fire? That's (partly) because the series before (when the team went down 21 points) was about 61% effort and now they've cranked it back up into the 90's. It's so easy to fall into complacency.
Obviously this isn't the "only" thing in football. 2016 Michigan vs. Illinois with Illinois down to its third string freshman QB (JGjr) was a zero-chance game. I don't care if every player gave 100% effort the whole game - we're not beating Michigan in the Big House that day. But when the rosters are close to even - and nearly all of the rosters in the Big Ten West are close to even - effort and intensity really do matter. Go pull out tape of Rutgers' opener last year and then watch tape of their 10th game once they're 1-9. You'll see the same players in the same positions in the same schemes giving maybe half the effort. It's just so hard to keep up any intensity when the season seems pointless.
That's why I'm a Proper State Of Mind guy. It's a well-known speech given by former Illini head coach Ray Eliot where he says the line ""If you can get the boys in the proper state of mind, you've got a winner - YOU'VE GOT A WINNER!". It was his post-retirement speech - proper state of mind applies to all aspects of life - but with football, he points to everything I'm talking about above. 60 minutes of intensity is the key to football at all levels.
Which is why today's (very quiet) practice bothered me. Yes, a week into camp (and a very hot day) can lead to an "off" practice. I'm sure the coaches will use it as a talking point. But I was driving up here this morning thinking about all the urgency surrounding this season (I mean, it has to start happening) and then I watched a practice with, from my view, very little urgency.
Now, there were good things happening. I'll have lots to say about the offensive line later. I spent a long time watching the wide receivers and I think I have that figured out. But the main thing on my mind when leaving practice was this: where's the intensity? They were even tackling at the very end of practice (put in the fourth-string tailbacks and let the linebackers tackle a little bit) and yet there just wasn't the intensity I was hoping to see.
I want to see some juice. Some urgency. A lot of this stuff can't come from the coaches - it has to be the upperclassman leaders on the field picking up their teammates. That's how it will have to work during the season. "Third and seven, if we can get the ball back we can take the lead, everyone needs a laser focus here" has to come from someone on the field.
And today at least, I didn't see that. Color me concerned.