Tackling Combines

College coaches love the information high school combines provide, but worry about the recruiting demands they create. Instead of just talking about the problem, coaches are joining together to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

By Greg Scholand

Greg Scholand is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 13.10, December 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1310/combines.htm

Every year hundreds of high school football players … with the desire and the ability to participate at the collegiate level are overlooked by college and university coaching staffs. Often athletes go unnoticed because they are members of a team which did not achieve a winning record, the athletes attend smaller, lower profile high schools and/or the athletes fail to effectively market their talents to the proper audience.

Thus begins the Web site for a football combine aimed at high school players in the Midwest. With an admonition like that, it’s no wonder that such events are growing in popularity among high school football players nationwide. Student-athletes enamored with the possibility of continuing their football careers are increasingly turning to the combine as a central part of their self-promotion strategy.

For college coaches, though, combines are a double-edged sword. The information they provide about high school prospects can be invaluable, but they have also added a new facet to recruiting—one with the potential to place a major strain on time and resources.

As combines continue to proliferate across the country, some coaches feel they are reaching a critical mass where the costs are starting to outweigh the benefits. The NCAA is considering a proposal that would prohibit Division I coaches from attending combines and ban the events from Division I campuses. The idea is to keep coaches from feeling they have to be on the road every weekend watching one combine or another, and it has support among many coaches, who agree it’s time for the association to step in.

However, these new rules won’t close down combines. Players will still run every sprint they can in hopes of getting noticed, and coaches will still want to know their times. So, why would college coaches seemingly want to bite the hand that feeds them? Should high school coaches promote specialized combine training to players? And how can high school coaches help their athletes navigate the maze of options that combines present?

Rules of Engagement
In some ways the growth of combines is a chicken-and-egg scenario. Players feel the need to attend to be seen by the coaches they want to play for. Coaches feel the need to attend to be seen by the players they’re recruiting. Regardless of who started looking at whom first, some coaches believe this cycle is getting to be too much.

“If some programs show up and others don’t, that can be noticed by athletes who want to know what schools are interested in them,” explains Grant Teaff, Executive Director of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). “And certain combines will say to a coaching staff, ‘You’d better be there, because so-and-so’s staff is going to be there.’ And they’ll tell players, ‘You need to come to our combine, because all these coaching staffs are going to be watching.’”

Out of concern that this pressure will only get worse, the Big Ten submitted a proposal this summer that aims to take coaches out of the picture. NCAA Proposal 2005-151, which has the support of the Football Issues Committee, would prohibit Division I coaches from attending “any scholastic or nonscholastic activities devoted to agility, flexibility, speed, and strength tests for football prospective student-athletes” during the spring evaluation period.

In its rationale, the Big Ten points to coaches and prospects feeling compelled “to participate/attend for the sake of impressing each other.” It also notes that by removing the pressure to attend combines, coaches can spend more time on campus with the student-athletes already in their program.

Another major motivation is protecting coaches’ quality of life. “We’d like to give coaches a little breathing room from recruiting—it’s as simple as that,” says Mark Rudner, Big Ten Associate Commissioner and staff liaison to the conference’s football coaches. “The coaches feel like if they accept going to combines, then it is probably something they’ll eventually have to do every week.”

Purdue University Head Coach Joe Tiller, chairman of the Big Ten’s football committee, says the conference’s coaches believe that any advantage they gain from attending combines is far outweighed by the toll—in time, money, and energy—that it takes on coaching staffs. “Our assistant coaches tell us it’s another reason they’re forced to be away from their families, especially because most combines are held over the weekend,” he says. “And you can still get the information from a combine even if you aren’t there.”

Tiller believes that a rule barring coaches from combines could slow their expansion in general, relieving some pressure in the recruiting race for college programs and high school athletes alike. “The Big Ten coaches feel the events will be somewhat devalued if college coaches aren’t there,” he says. “We can’t tell anyone who wants to start up a combine that they can’t do it. But if we say that no coaches are ever going to be there, some of them might be more likely to think twice.”

The proposal would also prohibit Division I institutions from hosting combines. There’s already an obvious promotional advantage for a school that welcomes a combine to its campus, and it would likely be heightened if no other schools were represented. It’s a benefit that Jeff Jellison, President and Coordinator of the Indiana-based Hoosier Gridiron combine, acknowledges.

“When I conduct my combine at a college, I’m bringing in a couple hundred kids to see the athletic facilities and the whole campus,” he says. “It might not even benefit the football program. Maybe a kid has never been there before, and when he attends the event and spends time on the campus he may decide he wants to go to school there.”

Not surprisingly, combine operators like Jellison see potential negative impact from the new rules. “I think kids will be hurt more than college coaches if the college coaches can’t be there,” he says. “If it’s a reputable combine, the coaches are going to get the data either way. But the kids would miss out on a chance to make a really big impression on coaches who might be interested in them.”

Nonetheless, the proposal has the unanimous support of Big Ten coaches and is also backed by the AFCA, which found in a poll of its members that about 90 percent favor the prohibitions. The NCAA Academics/Eligibility/Compliance cabinet agrees with the motivation behind the proposal, but wants its scope expanded to all parts of the recruiting year. The Management Council will formally consider the measure in January, and if it successfully passes through the NCAA legislative process, the new rules could take effect as early as Aug. 1, 2006.

Being There
So how much are coaches really giving up if they can’t go to combines? Or, more broadly, what is the upside of attending them? Answers vary from one coach to another.

Some feel there is a strong benefit to attending combines to see prospects for themselves. This can be especially true outside of Division I-A, where recruiting is typically more regional and often based as much on potential as on existing abilities. At Division III Carthage College, Head Coach Tim Rucks says combines aren’t a central focus of his recruiting—he goes to only one or two a year—but part of the value for him is observing things that don’t show up in a letter or a stats summary.

“A good recruiter, especially at the D-III level, has to look ahead, and seeing a kid in person can really tell you a lot,” Rucks says. “For one thing, you can look at the size of a player’s frame and see how he’s going to fill out. For example, when our starting right tackle was a senior in high school, he was just 200 pounds. If you just looked at the numbers, you wouldn’t say that anyone should recruit the guy. But we saw that he had room to grow, and he’s now playing at 265 pounds for us as a junior.”

Rucks says a good eye at a combine can also spot someone whose raw numbers belie greater potential. “A lot of high school kids don’t know how to do some of these tests, like a shuttle run, properly,” he says. “So their times are not always going to reflect their true abilities. You can watch them run a certain 40 time and say, well he’s really faster than that, he just has bad form.”

Rucks also uses combines as an opportunity to assess intangibles—the character traits and attitude that make a great learner and a great teammate. Everything from how much an athlete hustles between stations to how he reacts after a particularly good or bad performance can offer clues. “How much do they interact with other guys? How well do they interact with the coaches? Those things give you an idea of their personality,” Rucks explains. “Seeing their overall presence in a group situation can be really important.”

At Purdue, Tiller and his staff use combines to learn more about athletes from far away, players they would otherwise have few, if any, opportunities to evaluate. “A combine can give you a chance to eyeball someone who you’re not otherwise going to be able to know as much about,” he says. “People know where the best kids are, but you’re going to know less about someone who’s far away, and combines can change that.”

Training in Vain?
Even if the NCAA rules are enacted, high school players will continue to invest time, money, and effort into preparation for the events. Just like the hundreds of SAT tutors and prep courses that help high school students look their best for admissions offices, a cottage industry of performance centers and personal trainers is helping student-athletes improve their 40 times and increase agility-drill proficiency. But is it a wise investment?

“There are usually more than 100 kids at our combine who have gone to a personal trainer to improve their score,” says Joe Russo, President of the Maryland High School Football Coaches Association. The MHSFCA Junior Combine is billed as the largest high school combine in the country—more than 800 players attended last year. According to Russo, so many athletes invest in personal combine prep because they feel the event is one of their best chances to get noticed by coaches at the next level.

“When we started the Junior Combine in 1990, 11 football players in Maryland earned NCAA Division I scholarships,” he says. “We have run it every year since then, and last year 132 kids received some kind of money for college, and 52 earned Division I scholarships.”

Tony Soika, Owner and Operator of Sports Performance Advancement, a private training facility based in Appleton, Wis., has also noticed the trend. He estimates that 75 percent of the football players who train at his facility are looking to improve their combine numbers. As a result, a large part of his work with them focuses on the drills that have become standard combine fare.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching simple mechanics,” Soika explains. “In the 40-yard dash, for instance, a lot of football players aren’t used to starting in a down position. So when they start their run, the first three or four steps feel awkward to them. Other kids won’t know the proper stance, so they will get into position with the wrong arm cocked back. It will take a split second to correct their mechanics once they begin running, but an eye blink is a quarter of a second.”

Soika says it’s not uncommon for someone who does combine training to add several inches to their vertical, trim two or more tenths off their 40 time, and make dramatic bench press improvements. But, he points out, those gains don’t necessarily create better football players. And the athletes usually know it.

“A lot of the players I work with see combines almost as a necessary evil—they want to train for them, and then they want their training to be completely different as soon as they’re over,” Soika says. “If I’m training someone to be a wide receiver, we work on things like mechanics, route running, core strength, and change of direction. When I have to stop that in order to improve their bench press, that does little to help them at their position.”

Soika finds that in addition to being a distraction, too much focus on combines can sometimes interfere with football development. “I’ve got a serious I-AA prospect, and his dad recently asked me to train him to do better at an upcoming combine,” he says. “That means taking time out of his training as a quarterback, but it also means I’m building him up to do more reps on the bench. If a quarterback suddenly develops a bulked-up, muscular upper body, that can affect his throwing mechanics.

“The more I turn him into a body builder, it’s almost like we’ll have to do damage control later on,” Soika continues. “When I’m training an athlete for a combine, I will make it clear to him and his family that my real goal is to make him a better football player. The day after the combine is over, we’ll forget all about it and train for his sport.”

Combine Coaching
While coaches and others may debate the value of specialized combine training, there is no doubt that many high school players boost their college football prospects through combine participation. But for a student-athlete who is taking a first look at the combine scene, knowing where and how to begin can be difficult.

Among an athlete’s first priorities should be identifying which events are right for him, and this is an area where high school coaches should be ready to offer some guidance. Some combines welcome players from all over the talent spectrum, while others are geared only toward elite athletes. If a player’s best shot for college football is at the Division III level, he may be best served attending several combines in his region—or the region where he would like to go to school—where Division III coaches will be. If he is a serious Division I prospect and already has the attention of recruiters, he might only need to attend one elite combine to verify what scouts already know about his physical abilities and skills. If he’s somewhere in between, he might consider going both routes.

Economics is another consideration. Teaff says that as combines continue to proliferate, some coaches are concerned about the potential for athletes to be exploited financially, spending a great deal of money to attend some events that offer little in return. Some combines cost less than $30 per entrant, while others charge more than twice that. There is no rule of thumb on how much is too much, so the best advice is simply to find out about a combine’s reputation and what it has to offer before signing up.

“It’s a good idea to find out how long a combine has been around—whether it has established itself or whether it could be here today and gone tomorrow,” says Jellison. “Some combines don’t have an office or a number to call to reach someone who can answer questions. Just as importantly, they don’t have a number that college coaches can call to learn about the event.”

Most critical is finding out how far a combine goes to make its results available to college programs. Ultimately, the ones that work hardest to put information in the hands of college recruiters are offering the most bang for a player’s buck.

Many combines, for instance, post their results on the Internet. National Athletic Testing System combines (see “Standard Measures” below), go even further, feeding their results into a searchable nationwide database that can be accessed by any college program. Other combines have mailing lists of hundreds of college coaches who receive information about the combine beforehand and a complete packet of results afterward.

In Perspective
While combines have clearly changed the recruiting game, many veteran coaches agree that placing too much focus on them can be detrimental to an athlete’s overall development. It’s true that a great combine performance can make an athlete stand out to a college program, but it is important to view these events, and their relative value, in perspective.

“My feeling has always been that a football program wants to recruit football athletes—not sprinters or weightlifters,” says Jim Collins, Head Coach at Capital University, a Division III school whose conference’s recruiting rules prohibit coaches from attending combines. “There are some really key skills, like body control, hand-eye coordination, and game sense, that no combine could ever really show you.

“Rather than spending time with a personal trainer, lifting for two hours, and then working on speed drills for another hour, I would rather have a well-rounded, multi-sport athlete who really knows how to compete,” he continues. “As for the skills you develop getting ready for a combine, I say we can always develop those things after we’ve got them in our program.”

“Combines aren’t so important that an athlete should ever give up another sport to get ready for them,” agrees Rucks. “What can really get lost if you focus on raw numbers is the importance of being able to compete and be part of a team. I like people to play other sports. I like it because they’re getting coached every day, and I don’t think you can replace that.”

Drills and More
Combines serve a specific function in the evaluation of football athletes. For assessing performance in a set of basic skills, they are in essence a great equalizer—the SAT of athletics. In a sport where everyone’s success depends in part on somebody else, they offer a chance for an athlete to distinguish himself in individual tests of strength, speed, and agility.

For that reason, while combines have sprung up independently throughout the country, their core activities and assessments are usually very similar. Most include the 40-yard dash as the basic speed test, and a vertical jump or broad jump is also standard. Agility and quickness are usually assessed with a timed cone drill, four-corner run, or shuttle run. For strength, athletes typically bench press as many repetitions as possible at a given weight, with 185 pounds being the most common. Coaches viewing combine results typically see the outcomes of all these tests, along with each athlete’s age, height, and weight. Some combines also provide academic information.

While most combines are built around the same core activities, that doesn’t mean they are identical. As they compete against each other for players and coaches, many have devised ways to distinguish themselves, and in so doing, offer more to their participants and interested recruiters.

“We select the top 200 kids from our Junior Combine and invite them back to attend an elite combine the following month, where we put them through a number of football activities,” says Joe Russo, President of the Maryland High School Football Coaches Association. “They’ll do passing and catching, one-on-one drills, run zone and man-to-man defenses, and other things that allow them to display their football abilities. We put it on digital video, and make it available to college programs.”

The Indiana-based Hoosier Gridiron combine takes sport simulation a step further, with seven-on-seven scrimmages. “It gives the players another opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve got,” says Jeff Jellison, President and Coordinator. “Some kids can go into an event and test very well, but for some their real athleticism and skills show on the football field, not in a timed agility drill. The kids also really enjoy it—when the final whistle blows, they always ask to keep playing.”

Standard Measures
One major reason for the growth of combines has been the demand by college coaches for objective data. To help ensure that coaches have a trustworthy, standardized profile of athletes from anywhere in the country, the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) launched a set of uniform testing protocols in January called the National Athletic Testing System (NATS).

Six state football coaches’ associations have partnered with NATS for their association-run combines. Combine officials are trained by NATS staff members to ensure that all tests are performed and measured according to the same standards, and all the information from sanctioned events is fed into a nationwide database.

“Our board of trustees wanted to standardize the testing of student-athletes so that a coach anywhere in the country could get credible, accurate information—whether it came from the East Coast, the Midwest, or the West Coast,” says Grant Teaff, Executive Director of the AFCA and Executive Advisor to the NATS Board of Review. “We sensed that there is an increasing number of combines out there, and not all of them are operating in a standard, reliable way that gives coaches what they really need.”

To find out more, visit: www.nats.us