Small College Sports

Spring football practice is now a Division III staple, too

Coe players use spring ball to work on timing, getting to know new schemes

Coe quarterback Quentin White (left) pulls in the ball as he fakes to Billy McAtee during spring practice at Clark Field in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Coe quarterback Quentin White (left) pulls in the ball as he fakes to Billy McAtee during spring practice at Clark Field in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Spring practice is a staple of college football.

Most fans associate it with NCAA Division I programs building for the future and bridging the gap between seasons. The ritual is observed at every level.

Even Division III programs ask non-scholarship athletes to participate in a series of offseason workouts. For a little more than a decade, Coe players and coaches have taken Clark Field for the event, dedicating their time and energy for a chance to assess and improve before preseason begins in August.

“This is a great evaluation tool for us,” Coe Coach Tyler Staker said. “We get out to see our guys on the field, get film, evaluate them and upperclassmen get to fine-tune those skills and timing.”

Staker was in his first year as a Coe assistant when the Iowa Conference allowed spring practice in 2008. He said he thought it started with just eight practices, increasing to 10 a couple years later. All levels can hold 16 full practices, but NCAA D-III teams cannot hold a spring game.

“We devote much of our time to skills, drills and fundamentals, revisiting some of our offense and defense that we need to brush up on,” said Staker, who has led the Kohawks to a 21-11 record and an NCAA playoff appearance in three seasons as head coach and 13 years overall on staff. “It’s also a good time for us to work on some new things that we might want to do but don’t have enough time in fall camp to get it all in.”

Sports have evolved into a year-round endeavor at all levels and offseasons are more of a concept than reality. Athletes are involved in strength and conditioning programs to make physical strides out of season. Staker said he has seen added interest from players to watch film and study the game.

Spring practice helps break up the monotony of those tasks from November through the end of the school year.

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“I’m glad we have this,” Coe running back Tyler Dralle said. “I think it’s really going to help us entering next year.

“All we want to do is be on the field, running around. It’s definitely nice.”

This is Dralle’s first experience with spring practice. He played baseball each of his first two years. He has enjoyed it so far.

“For me, it means a lot to jump-start me,” Dralle said. “I can get my mind on football the whole year for the first time in my life. It will help me know my assignments and be ready.”

The sessions are a perfect chance to work on timing. The aspect is critical for quarterbacks and receivers and also helps with backs and linemen in the run game. Players can adjust to new coordinators, which was the case recently for Coe.

After seeing new schemes on film or a drawing board, they can put it to use.

“It’s good to get out on the field and actually put it into action,” Coe quarterback Quentin White said. “See everybody get the timing down. It’s huge.

“It’s a good thing for everyone to do. There is a pretty big gap between the end of the season and (next) fall. It’s nice to break that up and get out, throwing the ball around.”

Coaches use additional practices to dive deeper into offensive and defensive schemes. They build trust and confidence with the players. They dissect personnel, using it as a chance to tinker with people in different positions. All-American and 2016 D-III Player of the Year finalist Trevor Heitland’s move from slot receiver to running back is a prime example.

“This time of year isn’t as high stakes as it is in the fall when you only have ‘X’ amount of days to prepare and then you’re playing games,” Staker said. “The nice thing about this is at the end of the each week, we don’t have a game to play. We can really focus in on development and have the freedom to move guys around and see if there is a better spot for them on the field to make an impact.”

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Reserves can use the time to gain experience that may not come during the season with starters receiving most of the practice snaps. Players assigned to scout teams can more repetitions during spring.

We have a lot of guys returning next year, but spring ball is really big for the underclassmen,” Coe defensive back Hunter Semelroth said. “They get quite a bit of the reps here. This is about the development of the players.”

Emerging leaders can assert themselves in spring practices and assume those roles in the fall. Spring can foster camaraderie.

Players have their share of fun. Staker had skill players doing lineman drills and gave the line a chance to catch passes and perform skill-player drills. The offense and defense squared off in a 1-on-1 passing contest with the loser doing pushups and the winner occasionally mobbing their teammate in celebration.

“We do a lot of fun activities during spring, so the whole team gets hyped up for it,” Semelroth said. “It brings us closer together. Off the field, we have team-building activities. We just get closer to each other.”

Staker said D-III is the purest form of athletics. Players aren’t tied to a scholarship. They are at that level because they have a passion for the sport.

“If you have enough love for the game, you will devote as much time as you want,” Dralle said. “You’re not getting paid. You’re not getting free meals and stuff. We come out because we love the game.

“I love every single one of these guys out here, so it makes me happy working hard for them.

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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