In the moments leading up to kickoff, particularly for a season opener, college football players try to harness any boosts in adrenaline, testosterone and general euphoria that accompany the pre-game buzz. If a hype meter could scan each player as he stepped on the field, it likely would register off the charts.
A year ago, in his first game as head coach at Kansas, David Beaty not only saw that first-hand, he had the medical numbers to back it up.
“We have heart monitors on our guys,” Beaty explained, “and we went back and looked at the data from pre-game last year in the first game, and the heart rates, it was phenomenal the difference. Even in our highest-rated heart monitor in practice, it was not even remotely close to what pre-game looked like, and those heart monitors tell us a lot.”
The Jayhawks’ eagerness certainly wasn’t the only factor in the outcome, but they ended up losing that home opener against South Dakota State, 41-38. Obviously KU’s players and coaches don’t want to experience such a disappointing outcome again on Saturday, when Year 2 under Beaty commences at Memorial Stadium versus Rhode Island (6 p.m. kickoff). Now that all involved have worked together longer, the head coach said the staff wants to “curb that enthusiasm just a little bit.”
An overzealous approach might have been unavoidable for many KU players this time last year, with so many entering the season lacking college football experience. Kansas used 39 first-time players a year ago, tying Florida State for the national lead. Likewise, KU eventually played 33 first-time starters in 2015, tying Central Florida for the most in FBS.
Then a sophomore, linebacker Joe Dineen remembers the anticipation he felt while waiting to take the field 12 months ago.
“I was nervous and high heart rate and all that stuff,” said Dineen, who started the first game of his career a week later. “I was probably a little bit too excited. I think this year, obviously I’ll be excited, but I’ll be more focused.”
As the season progressed, the junior linebacker added, players subdued their pre-game routines and trended more toward a focused approach than “a bunch of rah-rah stuff” the second half of the year.
After playing so many youngsters in what turned out to be a winless season, KU now returns most of its statistical leaders, so the Jayhawks expect fewer learning-through-experience impediments to overcome in the months ahead, even though the program remains in rebuilding mode. Dineen said players now know what to expect out of a typical Saturday and should take a more balanced method.
“Obviously you’re not gonna be down,” Dineen clarified, “but you want to keep a level head.”
Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen wouldn’t mind seeing more deliberate tactics taken in pursuit against Rhode Island, either. A former KU defensive back, Bowen understands the tendency to get excited for an opener, leading to a player over-pursuing or abandoning the structure of a defensive call. The coach has seen it all before. Players get “illusions” that they can come up with heroic, game-changing plays. He just wants them to follow their assignments.
“Guys want to make plays. They want to be the guy that gets to jump up and down and celebrate — and they should. It’s about making plays,” Bowen said. “But it’s about making plays within the concept of what you’re supposed to be doing.”
As Beaty and his staff keep trying to build the program back up to respectability, he said coaches will continue to “go to school” on heart rate numbers and find the best ways for players to manage emotions or anxiety.
Bowen doesn’t think he has to worry about all of the Jayhawks being high-strung any more.
“I think with the older guys,” he said, “they know their plays will come when they’re supposed to.”