Heads and Hearts: An Inside Look at Player Development

If you have been around college football over the last five years, you have probably heard the term ‘Player Development’ come up now and again as an emerging role within college athletic departments across the country. You wouldn’t be alone if your first thought was “Don’t all coaches develop players?”. While that is true, a Director of Player Development’s responsibilities cover everything players deal with daily outside the game of football. As one leader in the industry puts it, “My position is life.” Coach Mario Price of the AFCA recently had the opportunity to sit down with three pioneers of this player development movement, Eddie Kennison III, Tobruk Blaine, and Ed Jones II. Let’s take an inside look at these individuals, who are developing the heads and hearts of our student-athletes.

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WHAT IS PLAYER DEVELOPMENT?

Player Development (PD) is a unique role that looks a little different at every institution. At its core, player development is the mentorship and life coaching relationship between a staff member and the student-athletes. While every Director of Player Development has different ‘pillars’ they use, they all center around making their athletes successful individuals off the field.


If you ask Coach Jones to describe his role as Director of Player Development for Baylor University, his answer may surprise you. Just like players drink protein shakes to recover after a tough workout, Jones calls player development staff “protein shakes for the student-athlete experience.” In other words, they enhance the experience.

Ed Jones’ Beyond The Field Program seeks to create a ‘Generational Impact’ for his players and coaches. His mission is to educate, engage, and equip others with the skills necessary to reach their greatest level of performance. On top of steering the culture of the Baylor football program, Jones regularly mentors the players, offers speakers the opportunity to address the team, and spearheads the various committees that give his student-athletes the opportunity to use their voices and advocate for issues deemed important to them. Jones connects current students with alumni, generates career development opportunities, and helps create community service opportunities. While he himself admits the player development position is still being defined, it’s easy to see that his desire to change lives for the better is having a lasting impact on the lives of his current Baylor athletes.

Tobruk Blaine leads the Beyond Football Program at San Jose State University. As the Director of Beyond Football, she uses the three fundamental pillars of development (Explore, Inspire, and Cultivate), to provide necessary opportunities for the Spartans to create a championship life. This program guides her athletes in finding San Jose State’s career advancement offerings, discovering what they want to be a part of, and giving them the tools and opportunities to do so.

Additionally, On-site visits, Workshop Wednesdays, and the Agoge Academy are just a few of the ways Blaine pours into the professional lives of her players. She meets with every single player at least twice a year to help them develop a relationship, set goals, find ways to serve, and take the steps toward becoming a leader in all aspects of their lives. You can find TB in the football facility, at practice, and on the road giving encouragement, asking questions, and constantly adding value to the life of the program. Whether it’s assisting players with resumes, teaching a course regarding LinkedIn, or connecting players with industry leaders, TB’s passion for empowering others is evident in all she does.

“Beyond Sparta shows that our athletic department is committed to developing young men and women on and off the field to reach their highest potential now and in the future.”

– Tobruk Blaine

Eddie Kennison III is the Director of Player Development at LSU. In Baton Rouge, Coach Kennison’s day-to-day responsibilities involve constant communication with players and coaches. He is always seeking to connect with members of the Tiger football team to help build and develop them, as well as speak truth into their lives. At his core, Coach Kennison has a heart for helping people through difficult life events. When student-athletes begin to question life’s difficulties, Coach Kennison is there to help them process appropriate responses. He assists the athletes in discovering how to handle unexpected situations, feelings of isolation, and life-altering events.

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WHY PLAYER DEVELOPMENT?

The quick and simple answer for why schools should invest time and resources in player development is to care for student-athletes beyond their sport. Universities spend an exorbitant amount of time and financial resources dedicated to the skillset and performance capabilities of each individual athlete. Player development seeks to maximize these same athletes’ potential in every other area of their lives.

It is no secret that a mere sliver of college athletes across the country end up turning a professional career in sports. The secret question that a vast majority of athletes end up asking and struggling with is ‘What now?’ when their athletic career comes to a close. In that moment, player development personnel are there to guide and shepherd the athletes toward a fulfilling life away from the field, so they are positioned to be successful leaders in their workplace, community, and family.

“My passion is the development of people and seeing people reach their greatest level of performance.”

– Ed Jones

Mental illness is now at an all-time high across the country, especially in the 18-24 age group. The athletes currently enrolled in college, as well as those who follow, have grown up in a society dominated by cell phones, social media, and high expectations. The pressures and rigors of a college athletic schedule can place a tremendous amount of weight on student-athletes, and they oftentimes feel isolated with no one to turn to. Player development seeks to place someone, who is passionate about serving and listening, in their lives.

It only takes a few seconds of talking with the three aforementioned professionals to realize how much love they have for their student-athletes. Coach Kennison is passionate about helping athletes through transitions. His desire is to walk with young men through some of the most challenging times of their lives, providing guidance and support along the way. TB is a teacher through and through. She understands that young people need support and encouragement arguably now more than ever. That’s why you can always find her at practice, in the offices, and on the road constantly asking questions and providing praise. Ed Jones summed up his purpose when he said, “You just want to change lives.”

HOW CAN I START PLAYER DEVELOPMENT WITH MY PROGRAM?

Most programs don’t have the luxury of dedicating a full-time staff member to player development. What nearly every staff does have, however, are position coaches and coordinators who love their athletes and desire for them to develop in all areas of their lives. If this describes you, there are practical steps you can take to increase the amount of player development with your athletes. Coach Jones outlines a few steps that coaches can implement without costing the program a dime. He encourages coaches to reach out to alumni to help form mentor relationships with current athletes. Oftentimes, alumni have a great love for their alma mater and desire to be a part of students’ lives and success.

Jones also highlights the importance of utilizing as many of the school’s academic resources as possible. Many high schools and colleges have college and career readiness programs along with the corresponding staff members. Asking them to participate and provide presentations and seminars to student-athletes are fantastic ways to increase your players’ knowledge and connections in the school community. Another step to take toward implementing player development is asking local alumni to give presentations regarding their college experience and career path. This is also an excellent way to broaden the students’ horizons and form community connections.

Coach Kennison is constantly involved in the lives of his players and fellow coaches. He spends much of his day meeting the athletes in their current situation by walking the halls, asking questions, and seeking to know about players’ personal lives. While it may be simple, it goes a long way in developing a family-like culture. Coach Kennison encourages coaches to spend time helping athletes formulate a path for their future, or as I like to call it, a game-plan for life.

No matter how you decide to increase player development in your program, TB believes you should begin by focusing on just one thing. Learn to do that one thing extremely well. Whether it is mentorship programs, resume building, community service, etc., TB believes less is more. Whichever aspect of development you choose, TB teaches that it’s going to take extra work, in addition to your current role, to prove the program’s value. While it may add more to your plate, all three individuals would agree that it will be worth it in the end.

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ABOUT THE PLAYER DEVELOPMENT PERSONNEL

Eddie Kennison III is a former LSU and NFL standout wide receiver turned Director of Player Development for the Tigers. Coach Ed Orgeron wanted the newly created position filled by a former player, and he knew Kennison was the man for the job. Coach Kennison has a passion for helping individuals through difficult transitions, and college football presents young men with two of the largest transitions one could ever face. Using his own experience, Kennison helps guide players emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as they make the move from high school to college. He loves to meet the players where they are, strengthen their mental toughness, and increase their character and integrity.

Tobruk Blaine (TB) is the Director of Beyond Football for the San Jose State Spartans. Inspired by Brittany Wagner from the Netflix series ‘Last Chance U’, Blaine is driven by the question ‘Can I do more?’. While she experienced great success as a teacher, fundraiser, and director for the Boise State University cheer program, she has found her calling in developing the San Jose State student-athletes to be well prepared for life after the final whistle.

Ed Jones II is the Director of Player Development for Baylor University and the creator of the Beyond the Field Program. He describes himself as the “Head Coach off the field”, and for good reason. Coach Dave Aranda has tasked Jones with steering the culture and vision of the program. The main vision he casts for his players one of ‘Generational Impact’. Through his three pillars of personal wellness, community impact, and career development, Jones gives his student-athletes the necessary tools to improve their families lives for generations to come.

If you would like to learn more about Player Development, as well as hear the full interviews with Coach Kennison, Blaine, and Jones, you can listen to them all on our Inside The Headset Podcast, available on all major streaming services and linked below. If you have any questions about the article, the AFCA, or suggestions for future work, please feel free to email me at kkempton@afca.com

This article was written by American Football Coaches Association Graduate Assistant, Kyle Kempton. 

 

 


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