State FCS coaches set sights on summer, beyond as best they can

State FCS coaches set sights on summer, beyond as best they can
The Missouri Valley Football Conference announced Friday it will move to spring league schedule (Photo by Barry Bottino)

Recent months have produced snow on Halloween, temperatures in the 60s on Christmas Day and more snow the week following Easter.

Weather is just one aspect of college football that coaches can’t control. Injuries and the often unpredictable bounce of an oblong football are others.

Yet, nothing comes remotely close to the unprecedented uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prairie State Pigskin asked the state’s FCS head coaches where things stand in the midst of a spring in which the world has been altered in ways most never imagined.

Moreover, with the vast majority of players at home taking online classes, working out remotely and meeting virtually with coaches and teammates, each coaching staff is attempting to plan for more unknowns of the approaching summer with at least one eye on fall.

“The short answer is yes, we’re developing a few parallel paths, if that makes sense. We're thinking through a quote-unquote normal summer, then some version of an abbreviated summer, [or the possibility of] no summer," said second-year Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing.

Third-year Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott said, "We’ve talked about it as a staff. I’ve got a plan for a June 1 return, a July 1 return . . . we’re just trying to take it one mark at a time.

“I’m of the mindset of ‘let’s take this a month at a time and sort it out as we go’. We do have a plan in place for all the different scenarios and that does include us not having our kids all summer."

Brock Spack (photo courtesy goredbirds.com)

Brock Spack (photo courtesy goredbirds.com)

Illinois State's Brock Spack was one of the first Midwest coaches to call off spring ball.

"We're fortunate in that our team is more experienced than we were a year ago," said the 12th-year Redbird coach. "Of course we would like to have had spring practices."

Nick Hill, the 35-year-old beginning his fifth year as Southern Illinois head coach said recently on Facebook Live, “I tell our guys all the time I’m not a doctor. I’m not in these meetings. I’m going to take the lead of the people that are leading our state, the public health officials and when they tell us we’re clear and safe to go play football, then we’ll resume and go do that and we’ll have our team prepared the best way possible.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll have a football season, but that too is unknown at this time. For summer training, it’s all unknown right now."

A national view of football

That uncertainty is everywhere. In a story earlier this month for The Athletic, Nicole Auerbach wrote, "The NCAA has also been in communication with the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) as it tries to figure out what the return-to-play protocol must include. AFCA executive director Todd Berry said Friday that it’s important for the coaches to be part of the discussion because efforts to ensure player safety require more than just strength and conditioning staffers."

Todd Berry

Todd Berry

Berry, who was the Illinois State head coach from 1996 to 1999, told Auerbach, “We’re all spoiled that we’re used to having all our players in condition when they report. But there is a progression there to teach bodies to prepare for contact. That is not something you can just do in shorts.”

Auerbach further wrote, "Berry has already reminded coaches that, whenever the season starts, they may not have as much of the playbook installed for Week 1 as they normally do. Preseason camps will be more focused on preparing players’ bodies physically. He also has pointed out that Divisions II and III currently operate on four-week models; they do not have their athletes on campus throughout the summer like Division I does."

Spack said he's heard that the AFCA has pushed for "OTA mini-camps that are NFL-like without pads" for the summer.

"If we're allowed to do that, I've got ways to incorporate that into our routine," Spack said.

Where do we go from here?

Again, football coaches are natural planners who like to control as many aspects of their programs as possible. But it's a fine line when it comes to the coronavirus.

Adam Cushing (photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Adam Cushing (photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

"Another huge variable is even if there’s an abbreviated or no summer, what are the NCAA rules going to be with that? We can plan all we want, but the NCAA could come in and say that we have more or less contact than we’re anticipating because it is unprecedented," Cushing said.

Cushing, a Chicago native and Mt. Carmel High School graduate, added, "We don’t want to plan to the point that it’s a waste, but we want to have enough in place that whenever we get the NCAA and government guidelines and university guidelines that we will be able to fill in those blanks really quickly. We’ve got a really solid, sound structure on those parallel paths, but that’s where we’re at for now.”

Elliott said, "Whatever the NCAA decides, it’s going to be a shortened period of time if we don’t have our kids back in the summer. We have to have a very clear plan of how to get our kids ready to play football, not only from a schematic standpoint but also from a health and safety standpoint. Conditioning [is vital] because we can’t put these players into a higher risk of injury."

Strength in support staff

The role of each program's support staff has never been larger.

“The longer that it goes that we can’t bring the team back [together], the more important your strength staff becomes," Elliott said. "Now it’s a race against the clock as to how much time you have to get your guys prepared to play Division I football. I think we have a good plan in place for that balance of getting the kids ready to play football at that level but yet not overdoing it where you’re putting extra stress on them where they’re going to get hurt."

Cushing is also involving others in this decision making, but is careful not to overwhelm his staff.

Nick Hill

Nick Hill

"It’s not full staff consumption because it’s going to occupy time. It’s me and our director of football operations, a really big (picture) thinker named Jesse Walton, and our strength and conditioning coach (Joe Orozco) who is obviously a critical part of this thing. I’ve involved the coordinators some," Cushing said.

Spack said, "Summer is intense with lifting and conditioning. But you've got to be careful. You can't have a lot of overuse injuries in this situation. You don't want these kids to pay the price for something that was out of their hands. You can't go full-blown conditioning and full-blown practice. You can't do that because you won't have anyone left whenever you play in the fall."

Hill said, “When they tell us that start date, they’re not going to push it back for any teams that say, ‘Hey, hang on, our guys weren’t in good enough shape. We need an extra week.’ They’re just not going to do it.”

An additional eight 'noncountable' hours

The NCAA announced April 16 that it will allow all Division I sports eight hours per week for virtual "noncountable" activities like film review, team meetings, chalk talks, etc. This allowance began April 20 and is scheduled through May 31, though could later be extended.

Head coach Jared Elliott (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Head coach Jared Elliott (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

"I’ve talked to so many guys, at all different levels all across the country, and we’re all asking each other what we’re doing. Everyone is kind of doing the same thing. There’s only so much you can do," Elliott said. "That is one piece that we as coaches have been arguing, almost fighting for.

"First it was that we were given four weeks of those virtual meetings, but it’s good that they gave us eight hours a week to be able to continue to work with our players and stay connected with them. That’s been my biggest insistence since this thing started. There’s got to be structure and you’ve got to stay connected to your kids. If you don’t, that’s going to delay the return of players even more so. If we don’t come back in August and have four weeks to get ready, we’d better have some time right now where we’re able to stay connected and maintain the structure they need just for the safety side of it. I’m glad that they’re allowing us to do that.”

Hope springs eternal ... into summer, fall

“It’s going to be very, very interesting, but I’m still hopeful, I think all of us are in the sports world," Elliott said. "I’m very hopeful and optimistic that we’re going to play, but what is it going to look like? That’s the unknown. Is it a shortened season? Is it going into the conference games? Is it delayed, do we push the start date back? Who knows, but I do think having a plan in place for all those different scenarios is needed."

Spack said, "I'm hopeful. Let's hope this virus goes away and we're allowed to go back to work and to train. But the NCAA will tell us what we can do. How many hours do we get? How many days? What we can do, what we can't do. It's difficult to guess as to what they're going to put out there for us."

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