Regardless of the drill or whether players are in shorts and helmets or full pads, the one constant since spring practice and throughout each day of preseason camp for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team has been the emphasis on ball security.
From the time players step onto Scrappy Moore Field each morning for stretching and warmups, backs and receivers are given a football to tuck under their arm, reminded the importance of keeping it "high and tight" and then become fair game for defenders, coaches, team managers and even support staff to try to strip the ball or punch it free.
"They drill it in your mind and over exaggerate it at all times just so you know, no matter what, to always have the ball secure every time," senior running back Marquis Green said. "That's a big thing for all the coaches on the offensive staff. We're trying to get that through to the new guys and everybody how big a deal it is and I think it's a good idea to emphasize it and get guys used to it because it really helped us last year."
Ball security has been a point of emphasis for several seasons but the coaching staff came up with new ways to get players attention and develop the habit of always protecting the ball during last year's preseason camp.
The added attention paid off last year as the Mocs lost just six fumbles, ranking fourth nationally in fewest fumbles lost. They've ranked among the top 10 each of the last two seasons in fewest fumbles.
Even after a play is over, as a player jogs back to the huddle, he must keep the ball tucked away because defenders and coaches are still likely to rake at the ball.
Defensive players are rewarded for any strip and even praised for simply trying to rake the ball away.
"It's our job to try to get as many turnovers as possible and also to help those guys to always remember to keep the ball high and tight," said defensive back Dee Virgin. "We're trying to do the best we can to get the ball out, and if we do we get rewarded by having to run fewer gassers after practice or maybe getting a candy bar or something."
The punishment for any fumble is a post-practice "lame dog" drill, which forces the guilty player to tuck the ball high and tight to his body while stooping to hop on one foot down the length of the field and back, reaching down to touch the ground with each awkward step.
The awkward looking motion is also a shameful way to end a day's workout and sometimes a player is made to do it even if he didn't lose the ball. If a coach determines that a ballcarrier let the ball get out away from his body, putting the ball in jeopardy the way starting running back Keon Williams did Sunday morning, there are similar consequences.
"He's mad because he didn't fumble, but he's going to fumble it if he gets it away form his body and he has to learn," said Mocs coach Russ Huesman, who added that the staff goes over each day's practice video to chart which players are best at protecting the ball and which ones are more prone to fumble. And as the staff continues to determine the pecking order for playing time, any player with a tendency to put the ball on the ground or have it in jeopardy too often will have an even worse punishment than the lame dog.
"They're just not getting in the game," Huesman said matter-of-factly. "It's as simple as that. If you're going to fumble it, you're not playing. It makes no difference how good you are.
"I'm not saying we won't have a turnover this year or a fumble, but they have to know how important that its to hang onto the football."
Additional special teams work
The Mocs worked on putting together kickoff return and kickoff coverage units for the first time during preseason camp Sunday and also had kickers work on onside kick placement as well as different field goal angles.
"We're still tweaking some things as far as who we want where," Huesman said. "We'll watch this film and see who looked good doing it and make the depth chart accordingly. We have to have good players on those teams and who take pride in being a part of that."
It became obvious just how much the staff has been focused solely on preseason camp during Sunday's workout. During a break, Coach Huesman turned to one visitor and asked, "Why aren't you at work today?" The man smiled and replied, "It's Sunday, Coach." To which Huesman laughed and responded, "Oh yeah."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.