ORONO — The four-month grind that is college football begins Monday, and coaches like Maine’s Jack Cosgrove know that winning games and keeping players healthy for the duration go hand-in-hand.
Cosgrove has cut the number of days his players practice in full pads, reduced the volume of repetitions in certain drills and eliminated some others over the years, all in an effort to prevent injuries.
“This is a constant pursuit of ours. We compromise ourselves when we hurt people. If they get hurt on Saturday against somebody wearing another shirt, you live with that,” said Cosgrove, whose 22nd regular season at the Black Bears’ helm begins with Monday’s practice at Alfond Stadium and concludes with a Nov. 22 game against New Hampshire. “But if they get hurt on your field because of situations that you feel you can control, then that’s on you.”
Cosgrove’s efforts recently were given some teeth by the NCAA, which issued guidelines suggesting no more than two contact practices per week once the season begins. That, combined with this week’s $70 million settlement of a concussion lawsuit that produced a new protocol on how to treat the head injuries, shows how concerned the governing body is becoming with what happens to athletes like Maine wide receiver Damarr Aultman.
“The less (contact in practice) the better because you never want to risk an injury,” said Aultman, a senior speedster who hopes to play professionally next season. “Because me as a senior getting hurt and missing some practices and games could hurt my future as far as being an NFL athlete. At the same time it’s football. It’s hard to tell a football player not to hit because that’s the nature of the sport.”
It can be a fine line for coaches and players, who are increasingly faster and stronger. How do you prepare them for the speed and physicality they will face come Saturday while also preventing them from punishing each other during drills and scrimmages?
Cosgrove prefers to get the most intense practices out of the way in August, leading up to the first game.
The team will have 27 practices and two full-contact scrimmages before settling into preparation for the Aug. 30 opener against Norfolk State. Once the season starts, Cosgrove eliminates full-contact practices and has players wear shoulder pads and helmets, but no pads below the waist.
He has what he calls “standup scrimmages,” which emphasize proper technique without teeth-rattling collisions.
“We want our players on their feet,” Cosgrove said, “because on the ground falling over people or guys falling into you is where (a large number of) injuries take place.”
Cosgrove said he didn’t find anything in the new NCAA recommendations that he disagreed with or surprised him.
Other coaches concurred.
“We have been doing this for years. You have to have common sense on how you approach these things,” said William & Mary Coach Jimmye Layock, in his 35th season at the school.
“In the last five or six years the coaches have done an unbelievable job of regulating the contact they have anyway. Coaches are concerned about the fact you don’t want to put undue stress on young people with the contact daily,” said James Madison Coach Everett Withers, in his first season there after being an Ohio State assistant.
The players appreciate the emphasis on keeping fresh through the season. Eleven games in 13 weeks is trying enough.
“At this level you know how to hit, you know how to block, so we don’t really need that much contact,” Maine redshirt sophomore quarterback Dan Collins said. “Going into camp you should feel the strongest you’ve felt all season because of three months of lifting and training. Your body, from this point on, just gets weaker. Our coaches do a great job of keeping us hydrated, fit, keeping good meals in us. I think we do a great job of limiting contact.”
Even defensive players are on board, albeit a bit reluctantly.
“You like to hit as a defense,” cornerback Axel Ofori said, “but you’ve got to be smart about it. You’ve got to take accountability for your own body.”
Freelance writer David Driver contributed to this report.