The differences between the UW-La Crosse football team’s first fall practice a year ago and the one the 2017 team held on Friday were startling.
Typically, opening day of a football camp features more errors and instruction based off those mistakes. But the Eagles — practicing in helmets, jerseys and shorts in perfect weather conditions at Roger Harring Stadium — were unusually efficient in their first on-field workout as a team.
The relatively low number of players in training camp, with 129 players trying out for the 105-player final roster, helped the team line up quicker and complete more quality plays.
“There’s not as many new players moving all over the place. Really crisp for a first day. The guys had a great enthusiasm and great energy,” UW-L coach Mike Schmidt said. “Year 2 is a lot better in terms of how we get around and how our coaches are able to put the practice together.”
Maintaining that efficiency in practice will be important for UW-L, as the NCAA has done away with two-a-day practices. While the Eagles held only a handful of two-a-day practices last season, they were good opportunities to allow younger players more chances to get a grasp on the system at full speed.
Schmidt said with a smaller camp roster, the lack of two-a-days won’t alter the coaches’ approach much. UW-L’s usual practices are at such a high tempo that the Eagles average about three plays a minute in team periods, creating enough opportunities for coaches to evaluate new players.
“Us as seniors have to do a good job taking those younger guys underneath our wing and explaining to them what’s going on with the offense, so they can learn it as quickly as possible so we can get good reps in practice,” senior quarterback Tarek Yaeggi said.
Ryan Weber, a senior safety and team captain last season, said losing two-a-days has the long-term advantage of keeping the Eagles’ bodies more fresh as camp wears on. Weber, a Holmen High School graduate and the team’s second-leading tackler last year, added that less time on the field heightens the importance of actively watching tape.
“It just means we’ve got to have more mental reps watching film, because it puts a bigger emphasis on good film work,” Weber said. “It’s on us to get in the film room and correct the mistakes we make because we won’t be able to go back on the field that same day.”
Less players helped Friday’s practice move along, but a major source of the session’s productivity was the chemistry a large core of players has developed through the summer months. Schmidt, his staff, and Eagles’ upperclassmen made a push during spring practices to have as many players as possible stay around the La Crosse area to train together.
The fruits of that effort showed, as Yaeggi and senior receiver Nick Holcomb hooked up for a pair of deep touchdown passes during skelly periods — throws and catches that are difficult to complete without both players knowing the other well.
“It doesn’t look like we skipped a beat with him,” Yaeggi said with a smile.
But expectation comes along with the experience the Eagles veterans have with one another. So when simple things like alignments or motions aren’t correct, those players often beat the coaches to correcting each other.
Yaeggi said that’s part of the team’s focus taking more responsibility for its performance after a 5-5 season that began 5-0 before falling off.
“We were really anxious to get out here and get after it. Every now and then you can see tensions get high, we get sick of playing each other all the time,” Yaeggi said. “I think our young guys are doing a better job of listening and taking what we’re saying, and holding themselves accountable. I think that’s the biggest thing for this year is being accountable at every position.”