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Originally published May 6, 2013 at 6:17 PM | Page modified May 7, 2013 at 3:24 PM

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Losing a rite of spring: Could contact in practices become minimal?

Widespread injury issues have some people suggesting that contact at spring football games and practices be limited.

Times college football reporter

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Pac-12 football coaches got together for an offseason conference call Monday, partly to review:

• USC's spring game, in which the Trojans didn't, uh, tackle (insert snide joke here about the 2012 squad).

• Cal's climactic scrimmage, consisting of one regulation quarter and two with a running clock, of which one blogger wrote, "Time seemed to zig and zag, as if being run in a Dr. Seuss book."

• Washington's spring game, in which the dachshund race and a closest-to-the-pin contest were more suspenseful than what played out on the field.

Ah, spring football. Can't live with it, can't live without it.

On one hand, spring football is the game at its purest, an exercise in fundamentals and technique and all the foundational things these guys need to deliver mayhem on Saturdays.

On the other, for fan appeal, it has to be the most deadly boring pursuit out there, given the games are months away and the story lines are often imperceptible to everybody but their coaches.

Personally, I don't know if the world would suffer grievously if there were no such thing as spring practice, outside of maybe the state of Alabama. But it's a concept the coaches cherish, even as multiple teams in the Pac-12 limped toward their respective finish lines with a roster thinned by a graduating class, players unavailable as they rehabbed from offseason surgeries, plus newly injured personnel.

Arizona had 22 players missing from its spring game for injury-related reasons, and USC, already depth-shy for its scholarship sanctions, had 20.

The widespread injury issues in the league serve as sort of an ironic background for a growing debate around all of football. The burgeoning awareness of the dark side of concussions, and the possible cumulative effect of hits, has some football people perking up.

On ESPN.comrecently, Rod Gilmore, the cable analyst and former Stanford player, wrote, "It's time now for the NCAA to review and change its practice rules. Why do this? Because it's necessary. According to medical experts, every block and every tackle in the spring is one more hit that brings a player closer to having long-term brain damage."

Here's what's happening in Texas, where the average kid skips the Legos phase and goes right to two-a-days: A medical-advisory committee to an oversight group is recommending that in season, high schools be restricted to no more than 90 minutes of full-contact, game-speed work per week.

The NCAA currently allows for 15 spring practices, 12 of which can include contact. Of the 12, tackling is allowed in eight.

"As it exists now, there's nothing wrong with spring football," huffed Mike Leach, the Washington State coach. "In this country, there's a sense, which is ridiculous, that all of a sudden (somebody) needs to be apologetic for having football, for conducting football, for coaching football.

"Why would you be apologetic for it? It's one of the greatest American games."

Ban spring contact? It's a valid consideration that young college players are still in the developmental stage, and probably need some full contact simply to learn the game.

"They allow us eight days to tackle," said Arizona's Rich Rodriguez. "I think we really need that. Beyond that, I think coaches are being really careful."

For his part, Leach was in a head-scratching mood over the rules. He notes that when freshmen arrive in the summer for conditioning, paradoxically, coaches can't be around them. He'd also be open to an NFL-style minicamp, say in July, and a shorter fall camp than the near-month-long run-up the NCAA began allowing more than a decade ago when it moved to limit two-a-day drills.

Todd Graham, the Arizona State coach, argues that his colleagues are apt to err on the side of caution. He says ASU didn't have a full-pads practice the last three weeks of 2012, simply to avoid injuries.

"The health of my team is No. 1 for me," he said, "and I think for all of the other 11 coaches in the conference."

Ergo, the spring game as we used to know it has become a bygone thing, not that it ranks with the demise of the service station as relics of the American past.

Surveillance has always been another consideration. "We've implemented so many new things offensively," says Washington's Steve Sarkisian. "Do we really want to put two hours of 150 plays on film for people to scout against?"

They call that vanilla. In spring or fall, somewhere between there and violence is that elusive sweet spot.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com


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