Hit, hit, hit? Not at Buffalo Grove -- at least in practice, that is
By now, with a summer of preseason football practices under his belt, Tommy Dierbach's neck would already ache. His back would hurt, too.
"I got to the point last year that my back hurt so bad that I couldn't get up after making a play. I'd have to have my teammates help me up," said Dierbach, a junior linebacker at Buffalo Grove who was on the varsity last year as a sophomore. "This year, I feel fresh.
"I've been playing football my whole life, and this is a really different way of doing things."
Actually, Buffalo Grove coach Jeff Vlk might call it a completely radical way of doing things.
At Buffalo Grove, football suddenly involves a lot less hitting. Almost none, in fact. At least in practice.
Vlk, a traditionalist who grew up respecting and admiring the bone-crushing, skull-rattling hits in football, has practically removed all hitting from his practices in an effort to preserve the health and well-being of his players. Whereas the Bison would hit four of four practice days each week last summer, they hit only once a week this summer, and in a very controlled way.
Now that the season has started, the hitting is still regulated to only once a week. Last year, the Bison hit at least three times a week during the regular season.
"I was very torn on this at first because the old-school football coach in me says that we need to hit, hit, hit," Vlk said. "But the science behind it says different. And we had such a terrible, depressing season last year with injuries. We knew we had to do something different."
By the midway point of the 2018 season, the Bison had lost seven players to season-ending injuries or illnesses. And all seven players were starters or key players.
So after Buffalo Grove got knocked out of the first round of the playoffs last year, Vlk started researching. He discovered a coach in downstate Camp Point who is high on a practice philosophy modeled after many NFL teams. Hitting in practice is kept to a minimum and there is more focus on the weight room, on fundamentals, on footwork and even on warming up the body before use.
"We have really changed the way we practice. We are taking a much different approach," Vlk said. "We were in helmets and shoulder pads four days a week before. Now, we limit impact, we focus on the basics, and we really take our time on the warmup. We used to rush through our warmup so that we could have a long two-and-a-half hour practice. Now, we really warm the guys up and we're on the field for only an hour-and-a-half.
"We also don't make the guys run gassers, just because it's something hard to do. We'd rather run them through a track-style workout, doing things that will really help them with speed and agility. Our philosophy is that we are getting better in a smart way, in a way that will keep our kids as healthy as possible."
So far, the new system seems to be working.
The Bison, who even tried doing yoga twice a week this summer, head into their Week 1 game Friday night against visiting Downers Grove North about as healthy as they can be. Only one player was injured during preseason camp. He has a sprained ankle, which didn't even happen on a contact play.
And, unlike last year, there haven't been multiple players missing practices here and there simply because they are sore.
Buffalo Grove has also had no concussions in practice thus far. The same couldn't be said last year.
"Last year at this time, we had already lost three or four guys, and a lot of guys were going into our first game all sore and not feeling good," senior defensive end Michael Goubine said. "I know that last year at this time, my body was just dead. I was sore and hurting all over. This year, I'm a happy person. I feel so much better.
"And I feel like this has done amazing things for our team. Our team has become so much better because of it."
There was some resistance from the players at first. They were concerned that they would not get enough practice in on hitting. They were concerned they would be ill-prepared for games.
"We still hit once a week. On Wednesdays. And on that one day, we go full-go," Goubine said. "We're getting great practices in."
Now, it's time to hit for real, to play for real. And Vlk is, admittedly, a little nervous.
"I hope I'm doing the right thing," Vlk said of his new practice system. "With this being the first year, I'm incredibly nervous for our first game. But I think no matter what happens this season, I think I'd want to stay with this. The kids feel good, their bodies don't hurt, we don't have any injuries. The kids have bought in and they believe in what we're doing."
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw