Here it was a mid-May weekday afternoon, the season opener at Stone Bridge three-and-a-half months away, and Robinson football players after school were snaking through the parking lot up to the practice field like they would in the fall. The Fairfax County school issued helmets — although not pads — last week, with returning varsity starters lined up outside the equipment room to get dibs on the shiny new ones.
It’s football season even if it isn’t.
The Virginia High School League softened its out-of-season practice rule for all sports this year, and its impact might be felt more in football than in any other sport. Prior to the change, football team offseason activities, other than passing leagues for some and weightlifting for all, were mostly limited to paid camps away from school.
“Technically, in the past, we couldn’t do anything football-related outside of the season time,” Robinson Coach Trey Taylor said. “Now to be able to do it here on your own campus and not have parents driving and kids driving themselves, it doesn’t get any better.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations does not keep track of how many states allow out-of-season practices. But in a 2009 football survey, 10 states said they allow contact practices outside of the regular season.
The VHSL allows teams to practice out of season any time other than during 10-day “dead periods” that coincide with sports tryout dates in the fall, winter and spring seasons, an attempt to encourage students to play multiple sports and not feel pressured to specialize in one.
Local school jurisdictions can stiffen the VHSL guidelines, which is what the Virginia AAA Northern Region has done by capping the number of “green days” at 12 in each of the offseasons and 10 in the summer. Coaches are not paid for the offseason instruction.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association does not permit out-of-season practices and has no plans to allow them, although the issue has been discussed at various times, MPSSAA Executive Director Ned Sparks said, citing liability reasons, possible competitive imbalance and other factors. Non-school groups sponsor and oversee offseason programs.
In Northern Virginia, the newly allowed football practices are geared toward individual skills and fundamentals, not 11-on-11 play. At Robinson, five upturned garbage cans stood in for linemen during some drills.
Asked if they liked having an offseason football outlet, three rising Robinson seniors erupted in are-you-kidding-me chuckles.
“When you love it, you like the lifting,” quarterback Michael Hugney said, “but you love playing football. There’s a huge difference between going out with a couple of receivers and running some routes [as in the past] and taking snaps from linemen and actually going through game situations.”
Count college football recruiters as fans of the out-of-season workouts, too. Unlike coaches in many sports, who can watch young athletes compete in AAU and club and travel competitions, football recruiters could watch athletes in action only during the season, or at camps on college campuses.
Taylor said more college coaches are trying to coincide their visits to schools with green-day workouts so they can actually see a player perform — say, watch a wide receiver run routes.
“I think it’s a win-win for everybody,” said Jim Cavanaugh, director of recruiting and high school relations for the Virginia Tech football program. “Any time you see people move, do athletic things, I think that helps [a recruiter].”
In Virginia, players and coaches say the out-of-season work will make for more fine-tuned and sophisticated offenses. With linemen being drilled year-round, the number of sloppy early-season penalties should dwindle. Players are doing more football-specific conditioning, which could provide greater stamina and higher caliber of play.
“Any practice definitely helps,” Robinson junior wide receiver-defensive back Turner Peterson said. “Whether you’re doing it with full pads on, or with just a helmet, it helps.”
Rams defensive back Papsi Kabia, who is being recruited by Ivy League schools, said younger players have asked him questions during the workouts, the kind of on-field brain-picking and bonding opportunities that did not exist outside the season in years past.
Coaches say there is more time to develop young players and identify ones who might be ready to play varsity, and also more time to observe players in various positions without having to prepare them for a game at the same time.
At the Robinson practices, Taylor observed every player at an offensive and defensive position, with the veterans in one group and the more inexperienced players in another. He worked with three quarterbacks — one with varsity experience, one with junior varsity experience and one with no experience. Other coaches did likewise at their positions.
“They’re going to know almost every front we’re going to see before July, much less August,” offensive line coach Will Gardner said of his players. “So they can be a lot more aggressive, and their techniques will be a lot better, because they won’t be thinking [about] where to go.”