Colorado Mesa gives football teams an early chance to get ready for prep season
It’s 90 degrees, and the players are pouring sweat, sucking down water and dressed in collision wear.
It’s June, but somewhere in a crevice of the minds of every player and every coach are thoughts of December. That’s when high school football teams play for state championships. It’s the ultimate quest for every team and every player who buckles a chin strap and chomps down on a mouth guard.
The Colorado Mesa University football camp has become the destination for many teams in early June as they begin the journey they all hope culminates with hoisting a trophy in December.
Last week, five teams and a number of other individuals came to the CMU campus for three days of football and fun.
CMU head coach Russ Martin, whose booming voice could be heard around the camp, said it’s a great opportunity for football teams.
“They develop a lot of team unity and camaraderie, which is a big part of the success they will have this fall,” he said.
The camp was all about football, and that means contact. The popping of shoulder pads and intense groans and grunts of the full-contact drills and scrimmages was evident everywhere.
Rifle was the lone Western Slope team at the camp this year, and the Bears have made the trek to CMU a tradition.
Rifle has developed one of the top Class 3A programs in the state, with a history of excellence, but the team has suffered several disappointing playoff losses in recent years.
Head coach Damon Wells said success starts with the commitment of the individual player.
“We have 42 kids here,” Wells said during the camp. “I think teenagers catch a lot of flack about not being motivated sometimes. I can’t think of anything, expect maybe reading a book, that’s better for kids like this, out here working hard and sacrificing for their school, their community and each other.”
Wells, whose intensity can burn fiery hot, wasn’t the impassioned football taskmaster at the camp that he can be during the season.
He realizes the camp is about kids having fun. But there’s no doubt every team came to Grand Junction to get better, to work out a few kinks and to build that team mentality.
“Everybody knows football, so I think what separates you is the buy-in from the kids and those unique structures that are in place in your program,” Wells said.
A lot of Rifle players were fresh out of middle school, and the camp introduced them to high school football two months early.
Wells sounds like an academic guy at times because he is. The assistant principal voices his pride about his players’ academic excellence right alongside the football excellence. A couple of players missed the last day of camp to take college-admission exams.
He said the camp is a great way to develop the vital team chemistry required to feed a program year after year.
“There’s so many intangibles involved in being a successful football team and successful program. Having the kids away from home to be with each other and be with coaches, it really helps to build those relations between us and them,” he said.
Rifle senior Brock Clark, who rushed for nearly 900 yards last season, has come to the camp for the past four years.
Wells said they’ve had a tradition where running backs are required to wear a lineman’s number at times just to remind them that blocking is where offensive success begins.
Clark wore No. 60 at the camp.
“We’re the running backs, but we’re blockers first, and we have to realize that, because if you don’t block, nothing gets done,” Clark said.
The camp structure featured drills for teams and individuals, as well as time for the teams to break away and spend time working on their systems.
But there’s no doubt the camp is mostly about scrimmaging against different teams. It’s full-contact, hard-nosed football in June. After every play, head coaches and assistants will go to players for teaching moments.
The CMU staff and players provide enthusiastic support and motivation.
Martin said football is a physical sport, and players need contact to get better, but the camp is also structured to limit the risk.
“That’s one of the things we try to emphasize, is the quick whistle,” he said. “Our intent is to keep these young men healthy and have them ready to go in the fall season. We want them to develop, we want them to improve, but we want them to have a great time.”
But some of the scrimmages simulated game-like situations.
“In those, we allow them to get that full, full, full type of intensity, but it’s still limited,” Martin said.
Rifle all-state linebacker Austin Shepard just smiled about the physical part of the camp.
“I like to hit people, so this is fun,” he said. “(The camp) gets you thinking about football early, so it really does give you a jump-start to the season in a way.”
Clark said it’s never too early to work on the team concept.
“There’s no real individuals, it’s just all about the team. (The camp) really helps us learn to trust one another, because we’re out here (all day) trying to get work done,” he said.
Other teams at the camp were 3A schools Discovery Canyon from Colorado Springs and Woodland Park, and Evanston, Wyo., and Union High School of Roosevelt, Utah.
Good for CMU
Martin said the camp is also a great way to feature the CMU campus, its facilities and its coaches.
“They get the chance to work with our coaches, get to know some of our players, so it’s a win-win situation,” he said. “It’s a great recruiting tool for us to see some of these players and how they perform with our coaches.”
Naturally, Martin is always on the lookout for talented players to join the Mavericks after high school.
Regulations keep Martin and his staff from recruiting players during the camp, but he smiled and said he spotted a few players who would look good in the Mavericks’ maroon and gold.
The camp was two months before teams gather for the first day of practice in August, but it wasn’t too early to start working toward the goal of playing in December.
Clark was quick to put the Bears’ goals in the proper perspective.
“First, it’s all about winning the league title,” he said.
Then No. 60 took the field and broke a long run in a scrimmage.