Preparations in place for quick turnaround from spring FCS season to fall

Running back Jaelin Benefield’s health is a vital cog in the Eastern Illinois offense. (photo courtesy Sandy King/eiupanthers.com)

Although Eastern Illinois’ final spring football game was cancelled due to Covid protocols when its opponent did not have enough players, the impact of the unprecedented schedule will certainly carry into fall.

Never before has an offseason been so short. Third-year head coach Adam Cushing’s Panthers are just 40 days from kicking off the fall season Aug. 28 in a “Week Zero” game against Indiana State in Terre Haute.

“The first thing we did was sit down with director of football performance Derek Stein and embraced the idea that this thing is a marathon, not a sprint,” Cushing said at Monday’s Ohio Valley Conference media day.

Cushing added that his team is building its strength and conditioning gradually through summer.

“While we certainly targeted gains throughout the process, it was really to take care of their bodies,” Cushing said. “We had time to get them back after the season. They had about a month to go home to begin a nice program of recovery, optimization of their bodies, but then slowly grow so that we can be peaking when we hit Aug. 28 and beyond.”

Cushing also noted that rest and rebuilding is as important mentally and emotionally as it is physically.

Sophomore running back Jaelin Benefield led EIU in carries as well as touches in the spring season. The Pearland, Texas product addressed the short turnaround from a competitive spring to fall.

“The things you do off the field matter a lot more than what you do on the field, that’s what I’ve learned,” Benefield said. “The recovery and treatments that I’ve done (have focused) on preventive measures.

“You really have to be do everything that you can for the unexpected.”

It’s not just an EIU thing

Austin Peay’s Scotty Walden, who at age 30 is the youngest head coach at the Division I level, also stressed the importance of his program’s strength and conditioning coaches along with his training staff.

“We’ve been very cognizant (of the short time between seasons),” Walden said. “When our (spring) season ended, I wanted to make – from a scheduling standpoint – I wanted to make an emphasis on how long we could give them (time) off with being smart and understanding they had just played a full season. They played six (games in the spring) and three in the fall, that’s nine total. They played a lot.”

Walden wound up giving his players “eight-to-nine weeks off.”

“It was really good to get away from football. They’ve had a heckuva year,” Walden said. “That was big, not just from the physical standpoint, but from the mental standpoint. As coaches, we took off three weeks’ vacation in May, which is abnormal because typically you’re spring recruiting.

“We did that because we’ve got guys on our staff that coached (fall and spring). Akeem Davis, our defensive backs coach, coached a full (fall) season at Southern Miss and Austin Peay hired him mid-year. He coached the whole spring season for us, so he’s going to coach three full seasons in a year as have some of our other coaches.”

Southeast Missouri State head coach Tom Matukewicz said, “It’s about getting your body right. The thing that the last year and a half has done is we’ve missed a lot of player development. In the game of football it’s the weight room. It’s getting your body ready for the physical demands of the season.

“Our strength coach (Ryan Napoli) and his staff have done a great job since the end of the season . . . We had a lot of injuries this spring and it’s because we weren’t able to train and prepare, so hopefully that won’t be an issue this year.”

A pro’s perspective, by George

Eddie George played football at the highest level. After winning the 1995 Heisman Trophy at Ohio State, George played nine seasons in the NFL. The 47-year-old has now taken over as the head coach at Tennessee State.

Eddie George

Asked how hard it would have been to have played a spring schedule followed by a fall season as a running back, George said, “I think it would have been very difficult to have played a full season or half of a season and then turned around and played a regular season.

“There’s four different phases to a season. There’s the actual season and then there’s winter conditioning, there’s the spring season and then there’s summer conditioning. Well, this year has been interesting because between that spring and summer there was maybe a month when these kids had a chance to recover, get their bodies right and get prepared for the rigors of the season.

“We had to keep in mind as a staff not to put too much on them early on physically. And considering we’re a new staff, we had to do more teaching in the classroom about our offensive philosophy, our defensive philosophy, our special teams philosophy and our whole culture overall. So, it’s been a challenge. We’ve had to condense and be very flexible and be sensitive to what these kids have gone through physically, mentally, emotionally speaking. And do more hugging more so than demanding their best physical effort because you want them to recover on all levels holistically, so that’s been the challenge.”

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