BERKELEY –Sonny Dykes figures the best way to get better at football is to play football.
Cal’s head football coach is putting his players in as many game-like situations as possible this spring, taking full advantage of NCAA rules that permit eight fully padded practices and maximizing the Golden Bears’ exposure to what they might experience in a game.
“The biggest thing is just learning how to play football,” Dykes said. “Just tackle and get off blocks – all the stuff you have to do in a football game. We knew coming in this year that we were going to rely on a lot of young players, so we felt like a lot of young guys just need to learn how to tackle and be in those types of game situations as much as they can. We’re such a young program that I think it’s important for their growth to be placed in live situations.”
The Bears are going in full pads in all eight practices in which they are allowed. Simulating game conditions forces players to focus even more on the fundamentals than they would otherwise do drill work.
“It simulates more team-type stuff – for offensive lineman, to hold your block longer,” Cal offensive tackle Steven Moore said. “You might have a running back who will break a tackle and then break another tackle. In shells, they hit you and you stop. When it’s live, you have the opportunity to keep going.”
Rather than wear full pads for just a handful of long scrimmages, Dykes has spread out the live situations throughout the spring. Within a single practice, Cal may have two or three segments of 11-on-11 sessions with other drills in between.
“We didn’t want to rely on having the typical three, 120-play scrimmages that people have,” Dykes said. “Our thought was to spread it out a little bit, to actually get more live reps but just spread it out over practices. What happens a lot of times in those scrimmage situations is you get a lot of guys hurt when they start getting tired. So I think it’s helped keep us healthier this spring because we haven’t had those long team periods that have dragged on. We’ve tried to keep the team periods relatively short, and I think it’s paid off for us.”
Cal players and coaches agree that lining up and simply playing more football this spring was a needed step for the team to demonstrate improvement when the real games begin in the fall.
“As a defense, we really love it,” Cal linebacker Jalen Jefferson said. “It gives us a chance to make more tackles and make the right play. We’ve been taking advantage of all the padded practices. It’s going to help us as a whole unit entirely to become a better football team.”
While practicing in full pads is beneficial, the Bears are also focused on doing so in a smart way. More game-like situations could lead to more injuries, so the team has measures in place to avoid them.
“They enjoy the shorter team periods and they see that they are staying healthy,” Dykes said. “At the same time, they are getting the work in they need to improve. Obviously, we had so many injuries last year, and a lot of them were things you can’t control. But we did notice there was a trend that guys would get injured near the end of practice or at the end of scrimmages. It made sense for us to try to limit those extended team periods as much as we could.”