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Photo by Derrick Mahone
Lovejoy coach Al Hughes will have to change the way he has conducted preseason football practices because of new Georgia High School Association guidelines.

Photo by Derrick Mahone Lovejoy coach Al Hughes will have to change the way he has conducted preseason football practices because of new Georgia High School Association guidelines.

For his entire 35-year coaching career, Al Hughes has always conducted preseason football practice the same way. He would take his team away to camp and hold practices four times a day.

This summer, when Lovejoy opens preseason practice, Hughes will have to do it a different way. The Georgia High School Association made changes in preseason football practices that place limits on practice time and fine schools that violate rules.

Beginning this summer, players must participate in five days of practices in only helmets, t-shirts and shorts before going into pads. The practices are also limited to two hours.

Practice in pads, which begin Aug. 1, are limited to three hours.

Under the new guidelines, three-a-day practices are banned, and two-a-day practices cannot take place on consecutive days or exceed a total of fives hours in a single day.

“We will definitely have to make changes in our approach,” said Hughes, whose team lost to Tucker in the Class AAAA finals last December. “We had been using the same format and we felt we had a pretty good system. We have never had any problems.”

The GHSA helped fund a three-year study by the University of Georgia that looked into heat-related illnesses in the state. Last summer, two players in the state died in what is believed to be heat-related deaths. One of those players was Forrest Jones of Locust Grove, who died after being hospitalized for a week after collapsing at a voluntary workout.

The study found that found that heat-related deaths among football players tripled nationwide between 1994 and 2009 and that Georgia suffered more deaths at all levels of the sport (not just high school) than any other state.

Although it alters his plans, Hughes is supportive of the new guidelines.

“I’m for what keeps the kiddies safe,” Hughes said.

Indeed, several coaches said that the new guidelines only re-inforced their own approach to player safety during the torrid summer and early fall days.

“I’ve not been a coach that pushed [players]” during extreme temperatures, Eagle’s Landing coach Joe Teknipp said. “I’ve probably aired more on the side of going in shorts because of the heat factor.”

According to UGA researchers, high school student-athletes need about 10-14 days to get their bodies acclimated to the intense heat of late July and August. The GHSA instituted the five days in just helmets, t-shirts and shorts with that in mind.

“This is the way it used to be,” Dutchtown coach Jason Galt said. “It used to be you had a period of time where you had helmets only. It was a process. You were building to the first game.”

That process gradually eroded over the years as the start of the school year became earlier and earlier. Teams have had less time to acclimate their players, with the first day of practice often coinciding with the first day of school.

But school calendars vary across the state. Some allow for teams to get in several of high school football’s time-honored tradition — two-a-days — while some handicap teams.

“I haven’t been able to have two-a-days since I’ve been here,” said Teknipp, who arrived at Eagle’s Landing in 2008.

“I don’t do two-a-days,” Galt said. “I think they’re overrated. You’re with [players] all summer long.”

The new rules will have little affect on the way Drew coach Jarrett Laws goes about preseason practice. Prior to moving to Georgia, Laws coached in his native Florida, which he said had strict preseason practice rules.

“Since my days at Mount Zion, we quit doing two-a-days,” Laws said. “In a way I found that kind of counter-productive. We did one mental workout and the other was on the field doing the physical things. We felt we were getting the maximum out of the players.”

All schools must use wet-bulb temperatures, and not heat index, to determine when excessive heat and humidity call for limiting or canceling practices. All Clayton County coaches have the wet-bulb devices.

Last summer, Clayton County athletics director Kevin May canceled three practice days when heat and humidity were a concern.

“Kevin does an excellent job of staying on top of these things,” Laws said. “We are equipped with all the right devices.”

Coaches acknowledged the GHSA’s motivation behind its new practice guidelines, and said they wouldn’t be difficult to embrace.

“As football coaches, we have to make adjustments,” Teknipp said. “I think we’ll be alright. It’s for the safety of the kids. That’s the most important thing.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.