Football is a physically taxing and mentally demanding sport that requires players to battle their opponent through hitting, running and outthinking. While the hitting and running can be developed off the field, the thinking needs to come through practice, and that is where practice squads come into play. These players will run the offensive and defensive formations of the teams that their squad will play the following week. Their job is to mimic the other team so the starters can prepare better.
Coaching the Practice Squad
At most levels of football---high school, college and pro---there will be one or two assistant coaches who will review opponents' film to look for that team's tendencies. That could be the way the the team lines up in the backfield, the routes taken by receivers or the way the linebackers blitz. A coach will usually spend about 30 minutes at the start of the practice week going over those plays with the practice squad before they start scrimmaging against the starters. Most of the plays will be taught during the daily scrimmages.
Practice Squads in High School
There are two separate sets of thinking on practice squads at the high school level. Some coaches will put their junior varsity out as the practice squad as a way for the younger players to learn the game. The drawback is these players won't be nearly as physical and skilled as the team their school will play at the end of the week. That means the varsity might not be as ready to play. The second school of thought is coaches will stock the practice squad with starters who don't play both ways. For example, if a linebacker doesn't play an offensive position, then he will play on the defensive practice squad. The drawback to this is a player can get injured.
Practice Squads in College
Practice squads at the college level are almost exclusively made up of redshirt freshmen, who are players ineligible to play in games or walk-ons who were brought in by coaches for the sole purpose of being hit by the starters.
Practice Sqauds in the Pros
The NFL practice squad was once referred to as the taxi squad because the Cleveland Browns once got their non-roster players jobs as cab drivers to make ends meet. The NFL allows each team to put eight players on the practice squad who will serve as scout players from other teams. The minimum pay for practice squad players is $5,200 a week, and they are free to sign contracts with any other team during the season if they get a better offer. In addition, they can be activated at any time to the main roster to get in a game.
Practice Sqaud Uniforms
For decades, the so-called "badge" of the practice squad player was a mesh vest that was attached to the jersey with Velcro straps. This was done to differentiate the practice squad players from the rest of the team. More recently, practice squad players will also slip a cover over their helmets to again make them look different from the starters.
Why Practice Squads?
The practice squad is not glamorous. It is not easy. It is really not fun. So why do players cling to practice squads? In high schools, practice squad players hold out hope that they will make varsity the next year. In college, it is the same thing, plus walk-ons hope to earn a scholarship. In the pros, it is the opportunity to make an NFL roster. While that doesn't happen often, it can be accomplished. Pittsburgh Steeler and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison started as a practice squad player and is one of the more famed success stories.