When spring games are on TV, it's all about not showing off
By STEVE MEGARGEE
The increasing visibility of spring football games has offered plenty of feel-good moments and fan-friendly opportunities. What fans won't get is much insight into what these teams will be doing this fall.
Nebraska's spring game last week reunited a military family. Nebraska Army National Guard Sgt. Matthew Hawke wore a Cornhuskers uniform and then took off his helmet to surprise his family at the game. That provided at least one memorable moment on a day when the actual football didn't give fans any idea about what they can expect from the Huskers this season.
With so many spring games on television, teams don't want to give anything away to rival coaches who may be tuning in.
"This game now, being on TV, it just becomes another scouting tool for all our opponents next year," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. "So there was no way we wanted to do anything that was out of the box at all."
Thanks mainly to the launching of various conference networks, more and more spring football games are airing on television.
All 13 SEC spring games this year are airing live on SEC Network, ESPN or ESPU. Vanderbilt didn't even have a spring game, yet highlights of its final practice received SEC Network coverage.
ESPN is airing 15 spring games on its television networks - the vast majority on SEC Network - and has six more available through streaming. Just four years ago, before SEC Network's arrival, only one game each aired on ESPN, ESPN2 and Longhorn Network while 10 more were available through streaming.
Now that rival coaches can watch an increasing number of these games on television from the comfort of their office or living room, there's incentive for teams to stay as bland as possible.
"Offensively we kept it very vanilla," Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze said. "We have two new coordinators and it doesn't make sense to me for us to go out there and put on TV everything we think we can or can't do."
Spring football always has been about focusing on fundamentals more than anything else. In some cases, spring games can offer clues about a particular player's potential.
Feleipe Franks performed well enough at Florida's spring game that coach Jim McElwain declared him the early leader in the Gators' quarterback competition. Florida State safety Derwin James showcased his big-play ability at Florida State's spring game and served notice that he's ready to make a successful comeback from the knee injury that sidelined him for most of last season.
But those are the exceptions. Often, even the format of the game itself is different from usual.
A survey of over 100 Football Bowl Subdivision programs showed nearly 40 percent of the schools this year were playing standard spring games in which the roster was divided between two teams, though rules are often designed to limit contact and protect quarterbacks.
For instance, Michigan had a draft in which half the players end up on the "Maize" team and half end up on the "Blue."Ohio State divided into two teams with what appeared to be the projected No. 1 offense facing the No. 2 defense and the probable No. 1 defense matching up against the No. 2 offense.
But about 30 percent of the programs simply have the offense face the defense with a modified scoring system that awards points to each unit for various achievements such as first downs, big plays or takeaways. And about 30 percent of the teams don't have a formal spring game at all and instead conduct a scrimmage or practice in which nobody's keeping score.
Northwestern hasn't held a spring game for several years, in part to lower the risk of injuries. Instead of having a game, the Wildcats whet their fans' football appetite by opening up their final practice and holding a youth camp afterward.
"We work hard to make it worth our fans' while and have some fun but at the same time do what we think is best for the team to get prepared for the fall," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Other teams don't want to give up the exposure spring games provide.
Georgia earned publicity and likely impressed recruits last year when 93,000 fans packed Sanford Stadium for its spring game. Tennessee coach Butch Jones calls the SEC Network broadcast of the Volunteers' spring game "a two-hour commercial for the University of Tennessee." Spring games with large crowds give programs an opportunity to see how little-used underclassmen might perform on a big stage.
"When do they ever get to walk out on that kind of pressure and that kind of environment?" Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "You can't simulate that in practice."
Tennessee tries to keep fans engaged by holding various one-on-one and position drills during breaks in its spring game. For instance, last year's spring game included a quarterback challenge in which Tennessee's current signal callers attempted to mimic a memorable touchdown pass Peyton Manning threw against Georgia in 1996.
"I think it's also kind of exciting for our fans to be able to see that," Jones said. "It's something different than just going to a regular game. You kind of get a behind-the-scenes look."
These games might provide some entertainment value from that perspective, but they're unlikely to offer anyone an idea about what to expect in the regular season. Of course, that won't stop coaches from making sure.
"I think everybody probably tapes those games and looks at them and gets an idea of (an opponent's) personnel," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I think they're probably most valuable if (an opponent) has a coordinator change, to look at those things. If not, it's another piece of information. But you don't get a whole lot out of it."
AP Sports Writers David Brandt, Mark Long, Charles Odum, Eric Olson and Joseph Reedy contributed to this report.
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Updated April 21, 2017