NCAA aims for less contact in preseason football practice

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The NCAA football oversight committee is preparing to recommend changes to preseason camp that will include fewer fully padded practices and the elimination of some old-school collision drills.

The latest move to scale back contact in practice comes in response to a five-year study involving six major college football teams that found more head impact exposure and concussions happened in preseason practice than during games.

The committee’s initial proposal called for at least nine of a team’s 25 preseason practices to be run with players wearing helmets but no other pads, and no more than eight fully-padded, full-contact practices. That proposal went out to NCAA membership for feedback two weeks ago.

The committee is scheduled to meet again Thursday. West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, the chairman of the committee, said the plan is to hand over a final recommendation for a new preseason model for the Division I Council to consider at its May 19 meeting.

If passed, the new model would go into effect this year.

Lyons refers to the model as 9-8-8: eight days of players practicing in helmets and shoulder pads with no live tackling to the ground, nine days in just helmets and no more than eight full-contact days. The current proposal would also limit full-contact practices to no more than two consecutive days.

“We’re trying to provide as much flexibility within the model as possible and not dictate what days they get to do what, and give each coach the ability to coach how they want to,” Lyons said. “But then also limit the number of contacts that we currently have from a direct hit, head-to-head contacts that you currently have in practices.”

During live-tackling practices, no more than 90 minutes of full contact will be permitted under the initial proposal.

“What I’m hearing, a lot of coaches aren’t using 90 minutes so we may look and say, `Is that 75 minutes?”‘ Lyons said.

The study found that 48.5% of the concussions recorded occurred during August training camp. The teams involved in the study were Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Wisconsin, UCLA, Air Force and Army.

Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches’ Association, said there was some concern among coaches that Army and Air Force awould skew the study data. The two academies play a run-heavy, triple-option offense that can lend itself to more contact, he said.

Overall, though, Berry said the study is helping guide changes many coaches were already moving toward.

“We wanted things based on data rather than assumptions,” Berry said.

NCAA rules currently mandate at least two of 25 preseason practices be contactless and conducted without pads, Berry said, but a survey found most coaches already run about six of those leading up to the season.

He said going to nine padless practices, essentially walk-throughs, seems like a drastic change to coaches.

“To us that’s kind of a giant leap,” Berry said. “We’d rather take a step and then measure the results and say, `OK, we ended up in a good place.’ And take another step and keep improving along those lines.”

Coaches have been moving away from high-impact drills such as Bull in the Ring and the Oklahoma drill, where players mostly just run into each other.

“Most of our coaches aren’t doing it so I don’t know if it’s going to move the needle much,” Berry said. “But I get it.”

Berry said scaling back too much on hitting in practice could lead to players not being properly prepared to protect themselves in games.

“We’re fearful if we go too far in one direction we’d have a lot of injuries in that first game,” Berry said. “There is a process, a teaching progression to get players to learn how to control their bodies.”

The final proposal could look different than the 9-8-8 model, but changes are likely to be small tweaks, Lyons said.

“I think the balance is there,” Lyons said. “Do I think there’s enough there to teach and work through it? I think the answer is yes.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.