Then and now: How Chip Kelly changed college practice schedules
The day before Kentucky's 2014 season opener, Mark Stoops walked off the practice field feeling good. The Wildcats had just completed a revamped practice week and he relayed his feelings to Erik Korem, the Wildcats' director of high performance, who had suggested the schedule change.
"'Man, Erik, I loved it,'" Korem recalls Stoops telling him. "'I thought it worked out really, really well.
"'But if we lose, it's your fault.'"
Stoops was "half-kidding." Fortunately for Korem, the Wildcats beat Tennessee-Martin, 59-14, the next day and it was a positive beginning to a new way of doing things at Kentucky, part of an increasing trend in college football where teams are changing practice schedules and coupling that with sports science to help their teams reach peak performance on Saturdays.
The change is simple on the surface but nuanced in its implementation. Instead of a light walkthrough on Fridays, some teams moved their walkthrough to Thursday while making Friday more intense to build up to game day. An informal survey conducted by ESPN.com found at least 15 of the 64 teams in Power 5 conferences have switched to some variation of this schedule, including Cal, Iowa, Nebraska, Stanford, Oklahoma and UCLA. Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly is credited as the pioneer of this method when he was Oregon's head coach.
(Most teams use a traditional schedule that involves a player's day off either Sunday or Monday, padded practices on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and a no-pads walkthrough on Friday.)
"We try to stay ahead of the curve a little bit," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "Three or four years ago, I heard some people were doing it and I was interested in it ... so long story short we did a bunch of research and it started to make sense."
Sunday and Monday: Recovery time
Regardless of whether a team's walkthrough is Thursday or Friday, the timing of postgame days off is a matter of preference. Some coaches prefer giving Sunday off, others Monday. Teams are finding new ways to help players bounce back from the rigors of game day.
Texas A&M, under coach Kevin Sumlin, gives players Sunday off and that didn't change when they switched to a new end-of-week schedule this season. What changed was what the Aggies do for recovery.
"We're doing a lot of rehab stuff and massages and yoga," Aggies center Mike Matthews said. "On Sundays, we have a recovery day and you stretch, massage, hot tub, cold tub and it's really good for after the game."
Massages are also present on Sundays at Kentucky. Left tackle Jordan Swindle said after a 30-minute massage, he'll go for a swim.
"Some of the players go do a pool workout and swim a lap and work on mobility and flexibility and things like that," Swindle said. "I think that recovers you after a game so quickly. If you sit around you get stiff and on Monday you can't move, your joints hurt. Getting in the pool where it's not pounding, it's good for you."
Cal is also trying the modified end-of-week schedule but practices on Sunday. The Bears lift in the weight room first then have a short practice. There are no pads, helmets only, and it leads into the Bears' day off on Monday.
"I really like that," Cal tight end Stephen Anderson said. "I've had days off after the games before and just the last thing you want to do when your body is beat up and sore is sit there because that's not going to help. You get the blood flowing throughout your muscles so they can recover."
Tuesday and Wednesday: Crank it up
No matter if a coach prefers a traditional schedule or he's joining this trend, the intensity level rises on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Padded practices are customary.
Cal strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington views it like a wave. The Bears aim to peak on game days, gradually come down on Sunday and Monday, start going back up on Tuesday to peak on Wednesday, back down on Thursday and gradually back up on Friday leading into Saturday.
"We just want them to play fast and compete," he said.
It's similar at Kentucky and Texas A&M. The modified Thursday-Friday schedule can also affect how a game plan is installed.
"We put in a ton of [game plan] stuff Mondays then Tuesday we're still putting it in," Aggies right guard Joseph Cheek said. "Wednesday we have to have it in perfectly."
"No sweat" Thursday
A common thread among teams on this cutting edge is how days are labeled. Cal, Tennessee and Texas A&M all call their Thursdays "No sweat Thursday." Tennessee refers to its Friday as "Fast Friday," while the Aggies call it "Full speed Friday."
Korem, who worked with track and field sprinters since 2004, noticed they rested two days before a meet and did block starts the day before. The reason?
"You don't want the central nervous system to fall asleep," Korem said.
The central theory is parallel to a student cramming for a final exam, Korem said. If the student crams for multiple days then stops studying after the exam, the body crashes. The same logic is applied to the practice schedule so that players aren't crashing on Saturdays.
"Every game, we've played at 7 or 7:30," Stoops said. "So the difference is if we took our last full-speed rep on Thursday at 5 p.m., you're going a heck of a long time without any full-speed reps if you just walkthrough on Friday."
Kentucky tracks players' nervous systems with a product called Omegawave, which is designed to analyze players' "physiological readiness." The Wildcats also use Catapult Sports' GPS monitors to track the distance and speed at which players travel during practices, giving them valuable data on players' practice workloads. Cal, Kentucky and Texas A&M are among the 30 FBS universities listed as Catapult Sports clients.
True to its name, Thursdays are filled with meetings -- players review game film, are quizzed on the game plan and then go out for a light walkthrough.
"It's a great day for recovery," Harrington said. "We don't have anybody coming in the weight room. It's just a day of complete rest. So we come down and then on Friday the idea is to start peaking again."
"Full speed Friday"
The day before the game, when most teams take it easy, teams approaching the week in this new manner are cranking it up again. The practices are short and may even be in pads. Cal and Kentucky have only helmets on Friday. Texas A&M has shoulder pads and helmets.
"[Our] offense is fast and built on momentum," Cheek said. "We try to run it as fast and as perfect as we can. ... Probably a little over an hour, we get about 50 plays in."
At Cal, Harrington said "We run about 20-30 plays but they're done at full speed. We treat it like a speed workout almost like we do in the offseason. The idea is from the word 'Go,' they're running fast so that they're revving up the engine but not too fast."
Korem estimates Kentucky goes less than an hour. Swindle said "They're more of a run-through....You definitely get sweaty and out of breath but you're not beating your body up, so that's good."
Data, data and more data
It's not enough to just change the schedule.
"You can still do this and be dead on game day if you don't manage the rest of the week," Korem said.
Kentucky gives players "wellness questionnaires" every day, where players rate their sleep, mental fatigue, strength and pain on a scale from one to five. The Omegawave readings help dictate the type of workout might be prescribed, both in-season and offseason. Other schools, including No. 1 Ohio State, are using Omegawave.
Texas A&M used the Catapult devices all last season to collect data before making a decision in the offseason to switch their schedule. Anderson said Cal's strength staff live monitors practices for player distances traveled and "they'll tell the coaches 'So-and-so ran this many yards and the next person to them ran this many yards fewer.' So they'll control his reps so he's not exhausted."
Harrington said the Bears' staff compares days each week to get a feel for when the coaching staff needs to cut back on practice or add more reps. It's a sign of the increasing convergence between strength coaches and football coaches.
"Historically, if you're in the strength and conditioning world, you train the players and the coaches coach," Korem said. "Well, those lines are being blurred now. We have a high performance department where all the mental, physical, technical, tactical pieces are combined, so we don't look at it as 'football' and 'weight room' or 'football,' and 'recovery.' It's all together...it all leads into athlete preparation."
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Teams trying this are believers. Players say they feel fresher and coaches like the way their teams look on Saturdays.
"I think it has a very positive effect on us," Stoops said. "Coaches who have not done it ... when they come into the program and they see us doing it, they feel that there's more work getting done throughout the week doing it this way because Thursday is a very good up-tempo walkthrough, so you're getting a lot of work done on Thursday, then Friday, you're getting another practice. So they feel like you're getting more reps and getting more work."
Sumlin said the Aggies feel better and fresher, and his players echoed that sentiment. At Cal, Dykes said players are "fresher than they've been." Anderson said as a player, he prefers what the Bears are doing now to the previous method.
"I like this way a lot better," he said. "I like running on Friday, especially with the amount of plays. I don't feel like it's going to exhaust me with the game. I like having that intensity and continuing that intensity when we have our games on Saturday."
The traditional Friday walkthrough format is still the most used, including by elite teams. Each of the top five teams in the current Associated Press poll -- Ohio State, Baylor, Clemson, LSU and TCU -- stick to the traditional Friday walkthrough, so there's something to be said for that.
But coaches will seek any way to gain a leg up on others, and this is one way some believe they can obtain one.
"It used to be if you were an Air Raid or up-tempo, no-huddle offense, that was something that would give you an edge," Dykes said. "Well now, everybody does it. So I think as a result, we're open to say, 'We have to find an edge any way we can get it.'"
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