In Butch Jones’ first spring as head coach, the only thing that caused more racket than the loud music in Tennessee’s early morning practices was the crunch of the helmets and shoulder pads.
There were Oklahoma drills and scrimmages and even sessions in which the quarterbacks were “live” and free to be tackled.
But it’s easy to trade blows in the spring, when the only thing looming on the calendar is a summer vacation.
In August, with real football starting in four weeks, there’s less margin for error if injuries crop up.
So coaches have to be thoughtful about how they parcel out the contact.
“We want to be very physical, but it is a balancing act,” Jones said on Saturday.
The balancing act will take on greater importance in the coming days. Tennessee’s first two practices — Friday and Saturday — were in light gear. The Vols will add “shells” — shoulder pads — on Sunday. The first full-gear practice will be on Tuesday.
Jones said there will be “physical practices” on the horizon.
“But we’ll pick our spots,” he said.
Picking those spots is often a team effort involving coaches, trainers and medical staff.
If a team reaches mid-August in relatively good health, a coach might be willing to push forward with more contact, an extra scrimmage or just a few more moments devoted to live team drills.
But if the injury list starts to get crowded, or if injuries are grouped in certain vulnerable positions, then coaches might pump the brakes.
“We talk about that a lot when the pads come on,” said defensive coordinator John Jancek. “You have to have the pulse of the team, the trainers, the strength and conditioning coaches and keep everyone in the loop as to the level of fatigue. You’ve just got to be smart.”
Some NFL teams rarely hit in practices, although they do have the advantage of four preseason games to prepare for the season. In college, most coaches don’t have the luxury of forgoing contact.
In 2010, Southern California coach Lane Kiffin made waves when he barred his team from live tackling in the preseason except for two weekend scrimmages.
But Kiffin made that call on a roster depleted by NCAA sanctions after witnessing one of his top defensive starters lost to a serious ankle injury.
The 2013 Vols, although picked to finish near the bottom of the league, do have a senior-laden club and are close to the maximum allotment of 85 scholarship players.
And, as of today, they have few injuries.
“It’s a fine line,” said Jancek. “You went through the spring and you banged and you come back in fall camp and you want to re-establish that identity. You have to be careful. You have to be smart. You have to choose your spots when you do that.”
Jones said he will pick those spots wisely. But he won’t swear off a physical camp.
“To learn how to swim,” he said, “you’ve got to jump in the pool.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.