PRESEASON football practice starts today (Wednesday) for local teams, but a little earlier and with a little less armor than usual.
Due to a new state rule, teams will only work out in helmets and shorts for the first five days of practice to allow players to acclimate to the heat. Teams can’t don pads until Aug. 1.
Jefferson coach T. McFerrin doesn’t believe this will be much of a drastic change, however.
“We’ve been working all summer long; it’s not going to be a big change for us,” McFerrin said.
Like Jefferson, most all area schools have been busy over the summer in voluntary workouts, conditioning drills and 7-on-7 passing league scrimmages. So the first five days will be somewhat of an extension of what’s already been going on.
“Our kids are just like anybody else,” East Jackson coach Brian Smith said. “They’re working hard. They’re used to being out there. The rules are probably in place for the kid who just shows up and hadn’t been there.”
New Jackson County coach Benji Harrison said that while actual practice is different from summer workouts, he believes his team will already be pretty well conditioned given the time they’ve already logged in the toasty months of June and July.
“I think we will,” he said. “We go outside everyday and our kids are adjusting to the heat.”
The new acclimation period is part of the GHSA’s plan to address serious heat-related issues that have had turned tragic in preseason practice in recent years. Multiple players through the Southeast died last year.
Georgia, in particular, has had a history of heat-related fatalities. According to a study by the University of Georgia, the state suffered more heat-related deaths among high school and college football players from 1994-2009 than any other state.
Two players in Georgia died last year.
“Unfortunately, Georgia led the country in heat-related deaths in football last year, and, so, if it helps kids and gets more kids involved, if it gives kids a chance to be better prepared come August, I’m all for it,” Smith said.
Every single player — not just the team as a whole — must have had five days in helmets only before they move to full pads. That means if a player misses one of those first five practices, he cannot move to full-pad practices when his team does on Aug. 1. He must fulfill that final day of helmet-only practice before putting on full pads.
There are other new rules, too.
Coaches and athletic directors must utilize the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) index, not the heat index, when determining the safety of practice.
Furthermore, three-a-day practices are prohibited, and two-a-day practices cannot take place on consecutive days or run longer than five hours in one day. A three-hour rest period is mandatory between the two practices, and single practice sessions cannot last longer than three hours.
While there are more precautions now, safety is a coach’s top concern, Harrison said.
“We’ve definitely got to be safe with the kids,” Harrison said. “Football practice is important, and getting ready for the games is important, but the no. 1 thing is the health of the kids.”
McFerrin points to the benefit of the new five-day rule.
“I think it’s a very good thing for teams that haven’t been going out on a regular schedule,” he said.
The five-day rule does, however, allow teams to start earlier than last year — albeit in a limited capacity.
“Getting those five extra days is good,” Harrison said. “It’s good to get the guys back in the rhythm of practice. I think the days in helmets will really be good for us.”
The way Smith sees it, that’s five extra days of instruction for his team. He welcomes the transition time.
“We kind of get on the field a little bit earlier than usual,” said Smith, who enters his second year with East Jackson. “That’s a good thing for us. I’m excited about that.”
COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF STARTS
Today’s practices will signal the official start of the preseason as teams have a month and six days to get ready for their Aug. 31 openers.
For Harrison, a first-year coach, these are exciting times.
“I’m anxious to start,” he said. “I’ve already preached to our kids that I’ve started the countdown to our first game to remind them how quick this is going to be on us.”
As for McFerrin, a 38-year coaching veteran, he said excitement “would probably be the wrong word” for him.
“You’re trying to get everything organized, and you’re trying to make sure your players are there, and it’s not excitement as much as it is concern about a lot of things,” he said.
McFerrin said there’s a lot to worry about over the next five and a half weeks.
“I’m always concerned about the heat and worrying about injuries and that kind of thing, so the excitement is when Aug. 31 comes,” McFerrin said.
Meanwhile, East Jackson goes into preseason practice after what Smith called marked improvement this summer compared to last.
While he doesn’t put a lot emphasis on results in 7-on-7 scrimmages, one thing did stand out to Smith during his team’s offseason work.
“We talked out about how we did this summer versus last summer,” said Smith, who seeks his 100th win this year. “The kids even started laughing because they even recognize that we’re better.”
Jefferson football players run through sprints Tuesday morning on the final day of preseason summer work. The first day of preseason practice is today (Wednesday). In a new rule instituted by the GHSA this year, all teams have to practice the first five days in helmets with no pads.
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