OAKWOOD -- There are no pads, and it is essentially a skeleton version of the real game -- but coaches and players alike know that 7-on-7 is as vital to preseason as conditioning and film study.
Just ask Malcolm Young.
The Riverside Military Academy junior trekked all the way from Miami (yes, the one in Florida) to attend Thursday's Fellowship of Christian Athletes 7-on-7 camp at Johnson High in Oakwood.
"This is my first (full) year at Riverside, so I wanted to get up here and spend some time with my teammates," Young, a tight end, said.
Time spent together on the field -- in any fashion -- is as good as gold for prep football squads, maybe even more so for the Eagles, who joined Banks County, Chestatee, Gainesville, Gilmer, Johnson and Rabun County at the camp.
With most of their athletes scattered around the nation and globe during the summer, Riverside -- a military-style boarding-school in Gainesville -- does not get the same luxury as most high school programs, spending much of the summer at various tournaments and camps. Yet second-year head coach Gary Downs knew that it was important to get even a handful of players together over the summer weeks, so he opted to take his team to its first-ever 7-on-7 camp on June 7 at the University of Georgia in Athens.
"The dark period for us in June and July is tough; I knew we would have some kids show up to lift in the weight room through the summer, but I also knew that we wouldn't get everybody driving an hour, hour-and-a-half just to lift weights, so I decided to see if I could get some kids interested in 7-on-7," Downs said.
The plan worked. And players that call Douglas County, Jonesboro and other state locales permanent home, joined up to compete in the 7-on-7 tournaments -- competition that features backs and receivers taking on linebackers and defensive backs on shortened fields in what is essentially two-hand touch.
"It's great because we've had different groups of kids for different camps, but you can see them and their families getting committed -- and that's a big part of what it takes to build a program," said Downs, who is hoping to turn around a 2-8 record from 2012. "The biggest thing is just that they're getting to compete and learn each other and the systems we use."
The story is just the same for defending state champions.
Thursday's FCA camp was the last in a long list of competitions for Gainesville High this summer, and the 2012 Class AAAAA title winners were just as happy for yet another chance to test themselves.
"It's a big part of what we do; it's like summer workouts," Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller said.
And while there has been a bit more attention following Gainesville this offseason, the Red Elephants have been doing their best to keep the summer -- which is already winding toward the real preseason -- much the same as in years past.
"Oh yeah, it's the same as we've been doing," Miller said. "Now, we've had a ton more phone calls from ESPN, Rivals, etc., wanting to talk and see what's going on, but what we're doing in the weight room and in the 7-on-7 camps is just the same."
While the spotlight may not be quite as intense for the other teams at Thursday's camp, there were plenty that came with higher expectations after impressive 2012 campaigns.
That certainly included Johnson and Rabun County, which put up their best campaigns in years in 2012, each under new head coaches. The Knights -- led by Jason Roquemore -- went 6-4 just one season after going winless, posting their first winning record since 2004. Rabun, meanwhile, went 6-5 under former Flowery Branch coach and Rabun alumni Lee Shaw, reaching the state playoffs for first time since 1998.
"I would rather have high expectations than no expectations at all," said Shaw, who said that he ended spring practice with 72 players. "High expectations are what drives you to greatness.
"It's exciting for us right now, because we've got a lot of guys back and on the same page. And camps like today just give us another chance to compete."
Roquemore said that opportunity is what drives his Knights.
"It's tough going 70-80 days against just yourself, and getting out here and going against someone else -- even if it's not a real game -- is big for the kids," Roquemore said.
The Knights also completed spring practice with 72 players and Roquemore said that momentum is building around the program -- though he says that momentum will only be as good as what lies ahead.
"The school, the faculty, the administration have all been fantastic, but last year is last year," Roquemore said. "We've got to prepare for what's in front of us and try and get better."
It's a sentiment shared by every program around the state this summer -- and it's a summer that is getting shorter by the day. August 1 is the earliest date for practice in pads and most teams will open the 2013 campaign on Aug. 30 -- and Thursday's work is an integral step in that process.