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Eagles soft practice philosophy paying off

Ask any opponent of Georgia Southern to describe the Eagles, and you’re likely to run across terms like “hard-nosed,” “tough,” “relentless” and other platitudes often associated with perennially successful teams.

Those adjectives also paint the picture of grueling, hard-hitting practices, yet Georgia Southern varies a bit from the rough-and-tumble practices of olden days.

Last season, plenty of questions arose as the Eagles practiced through much of spring and fall camp without ever going full contact and finishing out plays with complete tackles. In a sport where “playing through the whistle” is akin to scripture, the lack of practicing the full-on hits that would be needed during games seemed like a recipe for disaster.

Except that it wasn’t.

Not only did the Eagles continue their winning ways, racking up an unbeaten Sun Belt Conference record along the way, but they also did so with the league’s best scoring defense — a sure sign that the hitting and tackling was there on Saturdays despite its absence around Beautiful Eagle Creek.

Another factor in the defense’s success was the unit’s health throughout the year. Whereas the 2013 Eagles squad — which went full-steam just about every practice — had the athletic-training staff working overtime, last year’s squad was relatively injury-free and seemed fresh for every game.

And to say that head coach Willie Fritz’s reluctance to have his players tackle to the ground every day is “soft” would be a mistake. Maybe linebackers aren’t grinding running backs for their own team into the dirt, but the energy not spent on throwing teammates around is made up by the breakneck speed with which every play and drill is run.

No play in a 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 is complete at Georgia Southern practice is complete until someone gets to the ball carrier and — following a whistle — everyone else on the field sprints to the ball. When groups cycle out, the mistake of running to the sideline, instead of through it, is enough to set off the coaching staff about giving more effort.

With constant reps scheduled for even the players who are lowest on the depth chart and “up-downs” doled out for even the slightest lack of effort or attention to detail, players are worked every bit as hard as they would be if everything was full contact each day. Add in the benefit of the Eagles’ practice method protecting players from needless injuries that could be incurred by going to the ground, and you’re left with a healthier squad that is just as game-ready as any other team that steps on the field.

As time goes on, all of the fuss about those “soft” practices has died off. Sure, winning has a lot to do with that, but it also seems as though Fritz and his staff were a bit ahead of the curve. Over the last few seasons, more and more NFL teams have dialed down the contact at their practices in the hopes of saving the bumps and bruises for game day. There are now discussions among some collegiate conferences to mandate maximum full-contact practices, with similar mandates taking effect throughout all Georgia high schools starting this fall.

In this case, it’s looking as though the old-school set of three-a-day practices in the summer heat and “going 110 percent” at all times is a tradition that will have to die hard. There will never be a shortage of practice philosophies, but the Eagles have found a formula that puts them at the top of the standings while keeping them as healthy as ever.

Seems like a simple enough choice to me.

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