I’ve been paying close attention to college football for more than half of my life, and covering Florida in one form or another for more than a decade.
And I’ve come to loathe, not love, the beginnings of both spring and fall practices.
Yes, it’s a chance to see what the team I love might have in store for the season — but, more often than not, it’s just a small sample size that produces things we as fans and the collective Florida beat both overreact to, a snapshot often mistaken for the big picture.
I don’t think it’s smart to be too invested in practices in the first place. But if you’re going to pay attention to them, like I am, I recommend you keep these five things in mind.
Practice to game is not 1:1
You have certainly heard variations on phrases like “Practice like you play” and “You will play like you practice.” And there is truth to that truism: It’s easier to do anything in life well when you have practiced doing it, and football is no different.
But, well, you know well that Tim Tebow was a notoriously poor practice player. And I think the single player I found most consistently impressive at practices over my time attending them was...
...uh, Jeff Driskel?
I think I’ve made my point.
The defense is ahead of the offense
This is another truism that has also been truth for Florida for quite some time. I saw Florida defenses showing up Florida offenses for much of the Will Muschamp era, and I remember hearing similar things about the end of the Urban Meyer regime and most of Jim McElwain’s tenure.
There are structural reasons for this that aren’t only applicable to Florida. It’s easier for a defense to play fast and react to an offense it’s fairly familiar with than for an offense to make things up, and it’s also likely there’s less to install on defense, while an offense is being taught other things over the course of practice.
But in Florida’s case, it’s also been true that the defense has often been more talented than the offense. It wasn’t hard for a defense with, say, Dante Fowler and Vernon Hargreaves to look better than an offense that counted Jake McGee as its best weapon.
And though the offensive talent on hand in Gainesville has improved significantly in recent years, and the defensive talent is not currently at the level attained under Muschamp, I still wouldn’t be surprised to see or hear of Florida’s defense being ahead of its offense.
That’s just how it goes.
Coaches see way more than we do
Your understanding of these fall practices and mine is going to be limited to what we see get officially released or shown by Florida; real-time observations tweeted and posted to message boards by reporters in attendance; and ex post facto summaries of things from those same reporters and/or Florida’s in-house scribes.
Florida’s coaches saw these players this spring, have their tape from last fall, and have in many cases been scouting these players since they were minors. Florida’s coaches know who was killing it and who was dogging it during summer conditioning. Florida’s coaches get to evaluate their players through multiple prisms — “Who is best for our specific role?” “Who can help us more than he hurts us?” “Who is better/worse than we were expecting him to be?” — while reporters have to work from more limited “Who looks good, or doesn’t?” or “Who has bulked up? Who looks frail?” frameworks.
That’s not to discredit what you or I or the fine folks at 247Sports observe of these fall practices, of course. But it should be noted we don’t see with the same eyes (or the same wealth of context) that the coaches do, and that — no matter how smart or dumb we may think coaches may be — that difference means plenty.
These are painfully small sample sizes
The player that pops up every fall and looks great for two weeks of practice before disappearing during the season? That’s tradition — y’all may remember Latroy Pittman getting seemingly annual hype — and not just at Florida.
It’s a lot easier to stand out on one Thursday in August than every Saturday in a given fall — for better or worse. One terrible practice does not condemn a career any more than a terrific one makes it. And for every player who looks the part from the outset and never stops looking great — Vernon Hargreaves comes to mind — there might be 10 or 20 whose careers, like most lives, are filled with ups and downs.
Overreacting to a small sample size is human. But it will also leave you whipsawing from “We’re winning it all!” to “We are terrible at football!”
And you can save that for Saturdays with real games, right?
Bad likely means more than good
Still, if wanting to be sure about any extrapolations from a given practice or bunch of them, I would be far more comfortable doing that when it comes to a player looking totally out of his depth than one seeming to be a cut above.
I’ve watched a lot of players that went on to be NFL players at Florida, over practices and games both. The bad ones almost always stick out more than the good ones do, and the good ones tend to have to be as good as Percy Harvin or Hargreaves to stand out from their peers.
I think that’s because most of the players that end up on the roster at Florida are generally pretty good, and not as dramatically different from each other in terms of background, capacity, and athletic ability as you might think. Standing out requires being a standard deviation or two removed from the large middle of the Bell curve.
So when I see someone like Kavaris Harkless — and I’m sorry to call him out, and this is based on observations from several years ago at this point, but this argument needed an illustrative real-world example — struggle to perform even the simplest tasks of playing offensive line, I make a note of it. Harkless struggling to see the field throughout his career has always seemed to me like a reflection that his quality of play is as substandard as I thought.
And though there’s obviously some confirmation bias there, I think being able to see the true stragglers is valid despite that, and I’ve kept it in mind.
It’s easy to pick out Katie Ledecky from anyone in the pack in her races.
But it’s also even easier to distinguish the drowning man from the one lagging a bit.