Here’s further proof that the best ideas in football emerge from the college ranks: This week, Baylor coach Art Briles announced that a 400-pound lineman named LaQuan McGowan – the same behemoth who scored this highly entertaining touchdown during the Cotton Bowl – was spending spring practice playing fullback and tight end.
Maybe it seems radical, but Briles has always tended a little toward the off-kilter. This is the guy who insisted he had inside information about the College Football Playoff committee that apparently didn’t exist, and this is the guy who vented his frustration about last year’s absurd TCU-Baylor playoff debate by resorting to patriotic screeds about track meets. Briles has proved a solid representative of everything unique and strange about college football; he’s the primary reason a Baptist school in Waco, Texas transformed itself from one of the least interesting football programs in the country to one of the most wide-open and consistently fascinating.
Briles is boldly unafraid of experimentation, and as the odd little ritual known as spring practice commences at colleges around the country, it is worth noting that this is really the only good reason for spring practice to exist in the first place: It should be a time of rampant experimentation, of toying with the sort of radical thinking that has made the sport such a laboratory of ideas over the past decade. It should be all about the possibilities.
There are, of course, a handful of storylines that are worth keeping tabs on this spring: At Ohio State, the mother of all quarterback battles will begin, with three potential Heisman Trophy winners all competing for the same spot; up the road, at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh will commence the Wolverines’ reclamation project. At Florida, Jim McElwain will seek to clean up the unsightly mess that Will Muschamp left behind; at Auburn, Muschamp will attempt to rebuild a defense that proved hopelessly mediocre last season.
All of these are interesting to speculate upon, even though nothing will get resolved, because nothing really ever gets resolved in the spring. It’s not about resolution; because it’s not like spring football really even needs to exist. It is inherently dangerous; it was devised at Harvard in the late 1800s to “increase team membership and to acquaint the players with the rudiments of the game,” and it was later co-opted by coaches like Bear Bryant to weed out potential quitters. That changed somewhat in the late 1990s, as rules were changed to limit contact, but still, spring practice feels, in a lot of ways, like an anachronistic appendage.
I’ve been to my share of spring football games over the years, and I can assure you the only interesting thing about them is when you see something that you’ve never seen before. The one good thing about spring football is that it offers us that sense of possibility, of hope for a brighter (and maybe slightly odder) future. This is what college football has that no other sport does: It is stylistically diverse. It is an ongoing experiment. So thanks, Art Briles, for embracing the spirit of this odd American ritual. Few things are more patriotic than the notion of very large men catching more touchdown passes.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb