Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 15, 2014

Concord’s early risers

Gridders challenged by spring schedule

By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

ATHENS — The birds were just beginning to chirp in the predawn darkness Tuesday morning in Athens as Concord University’s football players made their way to their locker room to suit up for another spring practice session.

They were on the field at 5:30 sharp.

The Mountain Lions are prowling early for most of their 15 allotted spring practices this year.

“We decided to do it this spring because we probably had a dozen guys that we needed at practice, who just had a class conflict,” head coach Garin Justice said prior to Tuesday’s session.

“We’re almost teaching them a lesson — make sure you’re scheduling in the fall to where we don’t have a lot of class conflicts, because we need everyone there to get better.”

There is plenty of precedent for early-morning college football practice. When Chip Kelly was head coach at the University of Oregon, practice was at 6 a.m. every day, Justice said.

“There are a lot of benefits from it,” Justice said. “You know your guys are always going to be up for the 8 o’clock classes.”

“You know that guys are going to be getting into bed early, because they’re just tired, and they can’t be into a lot of mischief.”

“As coaches, it forces you to manage your time, it forces you to be prepared the night ahead,” Justice said.

“Some disadvantages of it, is you’re limited in the amount of time you do have. You can’t really do as much as you may want to do. ... It forces you to coach faster, to get more stuff in.”

He said that since most of the spring sessions are scheduled with a day off in between, it’s a productive thing “for the overall toughness of the team.”

“The thing we tell our guys is, regardless if it’s 6 a.m., 6 p.m., or anywhere in between, we’re going to get it in. We’re going to get our practice in. We’re going to get better. And the quicker they learn that, the better off we’ll be.”

“It’s really which way you want to burn the candle, and we’re just burning it on the front end.”

The coaching staff points out that the last time the program adopted the early-morning spring schedule, in 2011, CU won the conference championship in the fall.

Fullback Josh Williams was on that team.

“I think it made us stronger as a team,” he said as a drizzle of rain set in at the start of Tuesday’s session. “I think it’s fun to get up, get out here and get it done in the morning, real early. Get it out of the way. Then all you have left is class, and you’re done with the day after that.”

“That’s the good thing about these 5 a.m. practices. The bad thing is getting up and getting here. ... Some days, it’s difficult.”

He said he embraced the return of early practice. “I was very excited to be out here at 5 again,” he said. Teammates around him laughed softly at that comment.

He had a role as an upcoming senior of interpreting the value of an early morning to his younger teammates. It was pretty simple.

“The only thing I told them is, the last time we did this we won a conference championship,” he said.

Justice said that getting the players’ attention at the start of the day is another advantage.

“A lot of times, there’s a lot that happens in a kid’s day, whether it be girlfriend problems, or (they) failed a test, or something going on with family at home,” the coach said. “But there’s usually not a whole lot of bad things that happen at 5:30 (a.m.).”

“Sometimes it’s a little hard to get ’em up, but once they’re up, we’re getting their most focused attention because their day hasn’t started yet. No one else has talked to them, they don’t have to worry about anything else going on in their life.

“There’s a lot less drama involved with 5:30 in the morning.”

A typical day for a Concord football player this spring might include a quick shower and breakfast after practice, academic classes off and on through the middle of the day, a return to the Carter Center for position meetings with their unit, and study hall.

“It’s something that’s demanding of them, but at the same time, at 5 p.m., their day’s finished,” Justice said. “A normal student-athlete, their day may not be finished until 9 p.m. ... And tomorrow’s a fresh day, a new day to move forward.”

Williams has the routine down.

“I’m a firm believer in, you don’t have a lot of sleep to get up and get out here,” he said. “I won’t go to bed until, like, 11. I’ll get five hours of sleep, then I’ll take me a little afternoon nap somewhere in there after class.”

Justice said, “Last year, we were a slow-starting football team. Defensively, we played solid, but offensively, we didn’t come out of the gates like we wanted to. The second and third quarters, we were a very good football team last year; the first quarter, we were OK, we were average.”

“I think by us coming out early, it almost gets the guys awake quicker. Hopefully, we can see that effect in the fall.”

He commented that for the last couple of years, there were many young, inexperienced collegians on his roster.

“From a maturity level,” he said, “we thought that with this roster it’d be good idea to go in the morning, because it makes guys be responsible. It makes them go to bed, it makes them manage their time responsibly.”

Williams said, “Getting out here gets us woke up and out to class.”

Justice said, “They’ve actually done a nice job. I mean, if you ask any of them, they would probably rather go in the afternoon, but at the same time ... a lot of these guys love football. They’re very passionate about being a student-athlete, and it’s very important for them to want to get better.”

“A lot of our guys will go on their own and do work on the field in the afternoons by themselves. That shows the desire, the want-to, the motivation a lot of our guys have.”

The players know they have to be alert to perform at practice, either to move up the depth chart or to keep their starting job.

“You have to earn it, every day, through your play,” he said. “Every spot’s going to be open.”

As part of their spring practices, Concord plans a scrimmage on Saturday, April 26 at noon and its annual intra-squad Maroon and Gray game at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 3. Both are open to the public.

— Contact Tom Bone at

tbone@bdtonline.com;

Twitter @BDTBone