BCS title game provides proof that spring practice is supremely overrated

Yahoo Sports

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – College coaches will throw a clipboard at the thought. Fans will rise up in outrage. ESPNU will vigorously dispute the notion.

But let's go ahead and say it: Spring practice is the most overrated football thing this side of the Dallas Cowboys.

To coaches, the practice time is vital. They relish every minute of it like it's a weekend getaway with Kate Upton. It's time to experiment with positions and strategies, to check out the young players, to start seriously assessing what kind of team they'll have come August.

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To fans, it's become part of the year-roundedness of the sport, as it extends from regular season to bowl season to recruiting season to spring ball. It's another chance to tailgate by the thousands and go watch a glorified scrimmage, searching for next year's stars.

To ESPNU, televising spring games is a cottage programming industry. There is an audience for any kind of football, and an appetite for speculative appraisals of how next season will play out.

But is it really all that important? To all those spring football advocates, I present the scrambling, slinging counterpoint: Nick Marshall.

He's here for the BCS championship game with his Auburn teammates, getting ready to play Florida State on Monday for the national title. And the engine driving Gus Malzahn's no-huddle, spread offense spent exactly zero minutes in 2013 playing spring ball.

He wasn't even on Auburn's campus yet. He was still in Kansas, working his way through classes at Garden City Community College.

Marshall didn't get to Auburn until mid-June. He had only played one year of college quarterback, having spent his freshman season at Georgia playing cornerback. And yet a guy playing the most complex position on the field was able to pick up Malzahn's offense in time to not just be named the starter three weeks into fall camp, but become a star.

"The first week or so, I struggled with the offense," Marshall said here Thursday. "It wasn't something I was used to. … It took two weeks to get comfortable."

That's it. Two weeks in August. Yes, there were plenty of seven-on-seven workouts with teammates in the weeks leading up to camp – but coaches cannot attend or have input on those. (At least in theory.) And there was some film work with coaches during that bumpy first week.

Still: two weeks. Those can't-miss spring drills could be missed after all.

Part of Marshall's quick transition is the remarkable teaching acumen of Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Part of it is the extraordinary athleticism and ball-handling of Marshall, who can dart and deceive like few players anywhere. But part of it might also be that football isn't always the rocket science it's made out to be.

There is plenty of terminology to learn, and a lot of play memorization. But for Marshall in Malzahn's offense, a significant portion of the job boils down to this: be quick to the line and read the defensive end properly when deciding whether to hand off the ball or keep it. Apologies for the oversimplification, but the point remains that it did not take months of painstaking work for Marshall to become a highly effective Southeastern Conference quarterback.

But Marshall is hardly the only player in the BCS championship game who did nothing (or very little) last spring. Florida State's vaunted one-two running back punch, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, did not play in the Seminoles' spring game. Neither did tight end Nick O'Leary.

Much of the FSU secondary missed spring practice after having offseason surgeries. That alarmed new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who came over from Alabama and found himself implementing a different scheme to a lot of backups.

"My first impression was, ‘What have I gotten myself into?' " Pruitt said.

That's a coach for you. Florida State currently leads the nation in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, and is third in total defense. So that dire spring crisis was, again, vastly overrated.

Quarterback Jameis Winston played in the FSU spring game, and played well. But he was also playing baseball at the same time, actually starting 32 games for the Noles as either an outfielder or designated hitter, plus making 17 appearances as a relief pitcher. So it's not like Winston was spending every waking spring moment consumed with football.

Often times, what comes out of spring ball is a lot of empty hype for a player who won't be a star come fall. The offensive MVP of A-Day, Auburn's spring game, was running back Cameron Artis-Payne. He's had a nice season, rushing for 609 yards, but that ranks fourth on the team. In season-altering triumphs over Georgia, Alabama and Missouri, he had a total of four carries for 41 yards.

One group that will probably agree with the assertion that spring football is overrated: the players themselves. Especially the upperclassmen. It's one more grinding aspect of an all-consuming pseudo-job, one more chance to get injured – and the carryover to August is suspect.

The players shouldn't expect coaches to do away with spring football anytime soon. The fans would stage a revolt and ESPNU would be out a bunch of programming.

But when you're watching Nick Marshall taking shotgun snaps for Auburn in the biggest game of them all Monday night, keep in mind how important spring practice was for him.



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