19 Point Plan – #12: Change The Way We Practice February 26, 2010
It bugged me at Camp Rantoul, but I shrugged it off because, well, I was focused on dominating Missouri. But watching our season, and then thinking back on camp, and thinking about the season again, and then getting angry, and then pulling out my Rose Bowl tickets to calm myself down, I came to one conclusion: we need to overhaul the way we practice.
Camp Rantoul practices can be described with three words: On The Hop. Every player must run from one spot to the next – no walking. They’ll be in breakout sessions with their position coach for 15 minutes, and then the air horn will sound, meaning time for defensive drills (or special teams drills, or whatever). And to get from point A to point B, the players must run. And if they don’t run, Ron Zook will yell “come on fellas – ON THE HOP.” It was both funny and sad to watch the player reactions. They’d roll their eyes. They’d fake-run (running at the speed that dude who finishes last in every 5K – the kind of running style where you could walk past him if you wanted to). They “run” to the next drill, 20 more minutes, horn sounds, more “on the hop.”
I think I understand why it’s handled that way – Zook wants the entire program to have a sense of urgency, so why not have players run from one station to the next? Everything is done quickly at practice, trying to cram as much into their allotted time as possible. “Let’s go let’s go let’s go – today, gentlemen.”
I don’t think it works.
In fact, I KNOW it doesn’t work. We’re not a disciplined football team. Halfway into the second quarter of the Missouri game, the ESPN announcer nailed it: “Illinois just can’t help but shoot themselves in the foot.” So true (soooo truuuuuue). It was like that for 12 excruciating games.
Discipline starts at practice. So I want to change the way we practice.
1) No more “on the hop.”
No more running from drill to drill. No more “let’s cram in nine 15-minute breakout sessions.” No more frenzied pace for the purpose of having a frenzied pace. I was watching Joe Gilbert teaching a certain blocking technique to the offensive line, and just as he was describing the hand position needed, the horn sounded and off they ran. How is that helpful, again?
I understand there’s a lot to do. And I understand urgency. But I also understand that the players aren’t buying it. You can see it on their faces. You can also see it on the scoreboard.
2) No more celebrations at practice.
You know how they say you play like you practice? Well, when the defense makes a tackle 15 yards down the field in practice, they celebrate with chest bumps and helmet slaps. So in the game, when Ohio State runs 13 yards off left tackle for a first down and Travon Bellamy celebrates his hit, well, he learned it at practice. I know why the coaches encourage it – get your players to believe in and encourage each other. But the result is a defense that is way too excited to tackle a guy 21 yards down field. (I’ll stop there, because No More Celebrations is Point #13). My point here is this: don’t let the players get so excited about stopping each other. Tell them to save their excitement for when they stop Ohio State.
3) Let Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning run the practices the way they are comfortable.
Supposedly, Petrino likes getting out and running routes with his wide receivers. Supposedly, Vic Koenning likes standing in the middle of the defense and watching what transpires. Let them do just that. This is ego-check stuff for Ron Zook, as he’s a guy who likes the catbird seat at practice. But we’ve already covered what Zook’s emphasis needs to be. At practice, Petrino gets the O, Koenning gets the D.
4) Discipline, discipline, structure, and discipline
As I said earlier, I understand that they want the theme of practice to be urgency, but urgency is nothing without discipline. And every Zook practice I’ve ever observed has felt frantic. The coaches are all “we don’t have all day”, while the players slog along attempting to appear busy. Nothing feels crisp. Nothing feels structured.
Speaking of unstructured and un-crisp – 2009 Fighting Illini Football! I want to change that. And it starts with crisp practices. You catch Randall Hunt daydreaming during run blocking drills? Sit him down. Walt Aikens misreads the seam route? Run it over and over until he gets it right. Someone offensive lineman jumps before the snap? Lord have mercy.
Hey, I like that. New slogan. “2010 Illini Football – Lord Have Mercy”.
Hmm? No? Yeah – you’re probably right.