HOOVER, Ala. – As the sun creeps through the trees on a Friday morning in early April, more than 100 Hoover High School football players weave up and down the steps of Buccaneer Stadium.
Once each player laps the stadium four times, the entire team makes its way to the weight room for the second part of a 6:30 a.m. conditioning session.
This marathon is but one part of Hoover’s five-day-a-week training regimen, which starts the second week of January and runs through the rest of the school year. Hoover spends the winter and first part of spring focused on conditioning before bringing out the pads for May’s spring practices.
Similar scenes play out across the country, as high school football has evolved into a year-round commitment.
“I think high schools are adopting training that’s similar to what kids will see at the college level,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said.
“You can’t pick and choose your opportunities for greatness,” he added.
Coaches also can’t necessarily choose how often they’ll practice. Each state has its own set of rules to govern out-of-season activities, and each state has its own definition of what constitutes an organized practice. Vermont schools are allowed five days of spring practice while Florida schools get 20, for instance. In California, the rules even differ between the California Interscholastic Federation’s 10 sections.
In all, 16 states allow full-fledged, full-pad spring practices.
Alabama is one of them. The state’s athletic association gives teams four weeks to hold up to 10 practices and play in a spring game against another school. After putting his team through a winter and early-spring conditioning program that doesn’t count against its spring allotment, Niblett uses spring practice to simulate what the team will experience come fall.
“I want our kids to learn how to play the game and the tempo that we practice it,” said Niblett, who has led Hoover to the state championship game in all four of his years as coach.
Coaches’ objectives for spring ball vary as much as the state guidelines.
Hal Wasson, coach at defending Class 5A Division I Texas state champion Carroll (Southlake, Texas), uses spring ball to find the identity of his team, develop the team’s depth and build mental toughness.
Wasson, who like Niblett puts his team through a grueling winter and early-spring conditioning program before spring practice begins, typically uses 14 of the state-allotted 18 practices. His team wraps up the spring with an intrasquad game, which he says typically draws almost 4,000 fans.
“We try to create a very competitive atmosphere during this time,” Wasson said. “If you’re not physical and not being competitive you lose your spot.”
In Connecticut, schools have the option of conducting 10 days of practice toward the end of the school year or adding four days to the start of practice in August.
The choice is easy for Connecticut High School Coaches Association president Steve Filippone, also coach at defending Class L state champion Daniel Hand (Madison, Conn.).
“We believe wholeheartedly that the spring is the best time of year to stress fundamentals and injury mitigation,” he said. “If you’re trying to teach kids the proper technique to tackle and block while you’re trying to get ready for a game, you’re not going to put as much emphasis on it.”
The biggest argument against spring practice is that it discourages athletes from playing multiple sports. South Carolina grants teams 21 days of spring practice – 10 in pads – but pushes it back until the end of the spring season so athletes aren’t forced to choose.
Utah takes it a step further by prohibiting spring practice.
“We want kids who play baseball or run track to not feel like they’re getting left behind because they look out the window and see the football team working out,” said Kevin Dustin, assistant director of the Utah High School Activities Association.
Sarah Gearhart, David Scott and Paul Koniski contributed to this report