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Football players are smart, in their own way

Athletic intelligence is separate from classroom intelligence, and some players have both. The dumb jock isn't going to get very far.

July 06, 2011|By Matt Stevens
  • USC's Christian Tupou has his sights set of Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama during a 2008 game. Tupou will be a senior in the fall.
USC's Christian Tupou has his sights set of Arizona quarterback Willie… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Christian Tupou is a student-athlete. He plays football, and more specifically he plays defensive tackle.

The combination of these simple traits traps USC's Tupou in a series of stereotypes that thrust him to the bottom of the intellectual scale at a top-tier university.

But listening to Tupou talk and watching him show his football skills muddies the water. The starting redshirt senior has boatloads of athletic intelligence in addition to school smarts.

With fall camp fast approaching, he's studying Pacific 12 Conference centers and guards to see which hand they use to snap the ball, and to see how far apart their feet are. In games he'll use his off-season studying to help him shoot his gaps. Then when the ball is snapped, he'll let his experience and athleticism take over.

It's all a part of the intelligence athletes build over time that fans and students sometimes take for granted.

Some wonder about the balance between student and athlete, or about how a particular player could have gained admittance to a specific school. At their core, these questions assume that some student-athletes aren't smart — or at least not smart enough to have earned a place among the elite. But coaches and experts agree that athletes possess multiple types of athletic and classroom intelligence that allow them to succeed in all subjects, including football.

Football "is one subject, and we invest so much in this subject," Tupou said. "The coaches are with us two hours every day teaching [during camp] — and that's not enough. So in class, we're thinking about it. When we're lifting weights, we're thinking about what they've told us to expect. I'm thinking about it all day."

Players' intense focus on football may help explain why the sport has a reputation for fielding proportionally more low-performing students. Data from the NCAA's latest Academic Progress Rate substantiate this claim, at least in USC's case. Trojans football finished ahead of only men's basketball and women's cross-country in the latest data, while sports such as women's golf and women's soccer achieved perfect scores.

To Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin, academic classroom intelligence, football awareness and football classroom intelligence are separate. He said school smarts don't correlate to football smarts, and how well you can explain a play on a white board usually does not relate to how well you can execute it.

Kiffin says football awareness is what takes over in game situations. It's understanding angles, but also adjusting on the fly. And it's what goes on your video — or as Kiffin calls it, your resume.

"All the other stuff is slightly critical, but the end result, is what do you put on film?" Kiffin said. "That's what's going to make you millions of dollars."

According to Kiffin, football awareness is also the most difficult thing to evaluate. Over the course of time, football schematics become natural to players. But he said football awareness is something you can "only get a little bit better at."

As an example, Kiffin says pro scouts often misjudge first-round picks because they put too much emphasis on size and 40-yard-dash times. Those scouts have video and the combine to go on. College coaches don't enjoy as many luxuries.

Scout.com's Brandon Huffman makes a living out of trying to evaluate high school athletes. He calls football awareness "football IQ" — something tied into instinct and built on years of experience. Of course coaches want good students who will remain eligible, he says, but they tend to prefer good athletes over guys who are a step slower with high football IQ.

"Coaches don't want to build their class on 25 guys like that, but you certainly want four or five," Huffman said.

Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart had a "lesser arm and great football awareness," according to Kiffin. Huffman points to former UCLA cornerback Alterraun Verner, who made up for his 179-pound high school frame with hard work and high football IQ. So in some cases, hard work combined with football intelligence can more than make up for a little quickness or 100 points on the SAT.

"I would definitely rather have a lower test score and a higher GPA than the other way around," Kiffin said. "Because to me that shows he's an overachiever. Maybe he's not extremely intelligent, but he's worked so hard, that he's maxed himself out. That to me will translate over to football because he's going to do the same."

Kiffin and Huffman agree that no matter how you define it, there's no threshold on how "smart" you have to be to become a good football player.

"We've had a number of guys … go on to be first- or second-round draft picks at the next level, where some people in their high school were saying there's no way they could go to college," Kiffin said.

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