March 26, 2012

Fundamentals, technique focus of spring practice

Mike Summers' offensive linemen put their hands on their hips as a blocking sled skims the turf out of the back of the end zone. Taking turns, they've pushed the sled well over 100 yards.

Now their focus turns to Summers. Kentucky's offensive line coach spent much of Wednesday preaching about the importance of loading your arms, cocked at 90 degrees, to help create momentum and drive defenders off the line of scrimmage.

The arms swing back on the first step as the ball is snapped. By the second step, the arms are flying forward into the sled. Still cocked at the elbows, they strike the pad and help drive their hips forward.

But now some of them have gone too far. They're throwing their elbows too far back, and their heads reach the blocking sled before their hands.

"You don't want your face to get there before your hands do," Summers tells his linemen. That defeats the purpose of loading the arms to drive momentum forward.

It's this kind of teaching that's common in spring football practice. Fall camp is often used to build chemistry among units and find a rhythm. In season, there's just enough time between games to prepare for an opponent and develop a game plan.

That leaves spring as the best time for coaches to teach the game to young players. Fundamentals, techniques and assignments take priorities as the team has time to try and learn and grow.

"It's my very favorite aspect of coaching," Summers said. "Being able to take someone from whatever level that they are when they come to me and try to develop them to a point where they can be successful -- where they can go out and have confidence in their ability and to see them perform with excellence is the essence of coaching."

It's especially true for the Wildcats this spring. With an unusually large amount of freshmen and sophomores expected to contend for playing time, Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said the staff decided to take a couple extra days to focus on fundamentals.

In previous seasons, the staff began installing the offensive and defensive schemes after five days. This spring, they'll wait until after seven or eight days. Even then, they'll feed it to the team slower than they usually do.

They'll install the system, then go back to the basics to refine them. They'll re-install the system with what they've learned about halfway through the spring, combining the two by the end.

"I go home and study (for class), then study film here," junior linebacker Avery Williamson I go home and study notes. I feel like it's class, almost. Sometimes it's harder."

The hope is that spring is when there's the most growth among players. With no opponent to focus on, the only goal is to improve.

"It's a lot of teaching going on," linebackers coach Chuck Smith said. "We have to bring those young guys along and teach them the system. That has definitely been the focus."

Some of what Smith teaches are the absolute basics: facing up when tackling, wrapping the ball carrier and following through on a hit.

Smith has the task of breaking in an entirely new group of starters at linebacker. Williamson is the most experienced player of the bunch, but even he has plenty to learn. More than half of practice is devoted to drills broken down to drills at individual positions.

Summers also has to break in three new starters. Among the first and second string at practice on Friday, six were freshmen and sophomores. That's perfect for spring, when younger players typically progress more than experienced ones. While young players still have to be taught, veterans just have to worry about refining their game.

So Summers will teach. He'll keep an eye on the tiniest movements of his players. He'll make small adjustments and tutor players individually. He'll hope that all his lessons and hours of repetition pays off in the fall, when the focus will be elsewhere.

"The problem is, when you snap the football, you can't think about where your hands are and where your eyes are," Summers said. "That has to be muscle memory. That has to be a drilled response. So right now is when we can take those fundamental techniques and reduce them down to individual movements so we can train that movement over and over and over again. So when you snap the ball, you don't have to think about that. All you have to think about is our production."

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