Dabo Swinney stood at the center of a collection of cameras and voice recorders, reporters huddled in a close circle that seems absurd now, and offered what he could on the future of his football team — essentially a shrug that amounted to “Your guess is as good as mine.”
This was March 11. Clemson had just wrapped its first scrimmage and ninth of 15 scheduled practice sessions, and players were set to depart the next day for spring break. That night, the NBA would put the brakes on its season, and a slew of cancellations, postponements, frustrations and questions would soon follow due to the coronavirus outbreak. At that moment, however, Swinney provided his usual optimism.
“We’ve gotten a lot of work done, and if we don’t get another practice, I feel good about what we’ve been able to get done,” the Tigers’ head coach said.
That was a month ago, but it might as well have been another lifetime ago.
Clemson won’t practice again this spring, nor will any other college football program. Virtually nothing about the current state of the game is certain, including a potential start date for the regular season. But even amid the crisis that has overwhelmed the world in recent weeks, Swinney’s point remains a good one. Clemson isn’t exactly in a good spot, but the Tigers are better off than most.
At Clemson, there’s already a blueprint for a championship. There’s a coaching staff that retained all but one major asset. There’s the elite QB (Trevor Lawrence), the superstar tailback (Travis Etienne) and a wealth of veteran talent.
Take a trip down to Waco, Texas, however, and life is a bit different.
“I’ve heard people saying, ‘Well, everybody will be in the same boat across the country,'” new Baylor offensive coordinator Larry Fedora said. “Well, no they’re not. You’ve got guys who’ve been there for years and their philosophies are ingrained in their players. You’ve got staffs like us that are just getting together for the first time, and our players don’t know any of that stuff at this point, and the way it’s looking, they may not until the start of the season.”
Baylor, which hired a new coach and staff this offseason, isn’t alone. Two dozen programs have new head coaches. Dozens more are breaking in new coordinators. And even college football’s blue bloods like Alabama and LSU will be trying to fill some big shoes at quarterback.
Few cultures operate under such strict measures as college football, and with the virus upending even the most basic institutions on campus, it’s hard to tell exactly what players, teams or the game itself will look like when a more familiar life resumes.
“Their lives are so structured when they’re here,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of his players, “and we’re trying to give them that structure at home, too. But we have guys in downtown New York City, Hawaii, Seattle — all over the country. What we’ve been doing is, on an individual basis, sending a few things out, and a lot of guys are just at their houses trying to stay in shape.”
At this point, there’s no guarantee there will even be a season, but if football kicks off in September as planned, the veteran teams will have a massive advantage, and the ripple effects of a lost spring could be glaring across the country.
Here’s where we might see the biggest impacts.
Ask a coach about his biggest concerns today, and right after he mentions the health of his staff and players, the next word is “academics.”
On campus, players have access to a wealth of assistance — from face-to-face meetings with professors to daily tutoring sessions to quality control staff looking over their shoulders to ensure work gets done.
“You’re placing everybody in an online environment, and just not having that connection, you’re in uncharted territory,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “There are ramifications in terms of progress toward a degree, and you worry about whether everyone on your team has access to the equipment needed. It’s not a given.”
Teams are mailing out computers and portable Wi-Fi hotspots to players in need. Tutors are setting up meetings via Zoom and other video conferencing technology. Many schools are offering students the opportunity to switch to pass/fail grading, but even that presents problems.
“Some of our guys who need to stay eligible might not be able to, or it might not be in their best interest,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “And learning to take classes and be tested online, that’s all unique.”
Keeping every player academically eligible for 2020 likely won’t be an easy task, and it wouldn’t be a massive surprise if the NCAA loosens restrictions for a semester or some big names don’t make the cut.
Learning a new playbook
Fedora’s offensive system has been tested at places like Florida and UNC over the years, but one school where he has never so much as run a practice with his playbook is Baylor, which hired Dave Aranda, who came from LSU, as head coach to replace Matt Rhule, who left for the NFL.
The coaching staff was on the road recruiting through signing day in February, then had a few weeks of limited contact with players. No practices, no walk-throughs, no real insight into how the Bears’ personnel fits with Fedora’s scheme. If football is played in September, it will likely be a watered-down version of what the staff would prefer to run.
“Scheme-wise, you put in something basic and hope the fundamentals win football games,” Fedora said.
There’s plenty of discussion about how the NCAA or Power 5 schools might find extra practice time for players once they can get back on campus, but even under a best-case scenario, it’d be more of a crash course than a tried-and-true installation. And even at schools where the coaching staff has some stability, there will be plenty of new players still trying to figure things out.
Freshmen and transfers
Early enrollees have become a fixture of spring practices across the country, but that’s an advantage that won’t likely show up in the fall this year, as most of those freshmen who got started in January had to leave campus just two months later.
As Kentucky’s Mark Stoops noted, the online environment is no substitute for the face-to-face engagement that some players need to learn — whether it’s studying math or the playbook.
“Players learn in different ways,” Stoops said, “so we’re trying to be very organized and offer videos and demonstrations.”
The same is true for transfers. Even as names continue to trickle into the portal, the guys who have found new homes have hardly gotten settled.
“It all comes down to practice opportunities,” said Diaz, whose team added arguably the biggest transfer prize of the offseason in QB D’Eriq King. “[Offensive coordinator] Rhett Lashlee can’t be on a football field with D’Eriq King except for those 15 days of spring practice and in training camp. If we don’t make up those days, the product suffers. It helps to have a veteran guy like D’Eriq, but it’d certainly be better if we were all together.”
King will be taking the snaps for Miami regardless, and plenty of other freshmen will see action by necessity, but a year after true freshmen (Sam Howell, Derek Stingley Jr.) and big-time transfers (Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts) were some of the top performers in the game, the 2020 crop could be in for a much tougher ride.
Strength and nutrition
Under normal circumstances, players have access to strength coaches, nutritionists, dining halls and some of the most advanced weight rooms in the country. Not anymore.
“Let’s just say we’re back in August, that means for five months, what kind of workouts have they been doing?” Fedora said. “Are they at home lifting jugs of milk and water and books?”
For some, yes.
Schools like Ohio State have created multiple strength training programs — one designed for players who have access to a gym and one for guys getting by with makeshift equipment.
But even if schools are offering all the assistance they can, it’s hard to ensure that resources are being utilized properly. With the coronavirus outbreak impacting every aspect of the economy and a massive number of new unemployment claims, Diaz said he worries players could be spending their regular meal stipends on an entire family rather than ensuring they’re getting a proper diet to be prepared for the season.
“We all know the economic impact of this is going to be severe, and money is going to be tight, which means food’s going to be tight,” Diaz said. “Depending on how long this lasts, you’re not going to be getting the nutrition we’d be giving guys on campus. We all know about staying out of gyms and not lifting weights, but just not being able to eat properly, that’s a major concern as well.”
Jackson Carman is Clemson’s lone returning starter on the offensive line, and that could be a problem when he’s not getting reps with his new linemates this spring. Perhaps as significant, the groups aren’t cooking out together, going to the movies together or going bowling as a unit.
There’s a bonding time that every team requires, and this year that’s a lot tougher than usual.
New QBs aren’t winning over a locker room via Zoom, and while the time away might help separate the leaders from the followers, it’s hardly a recipe for great team chemistry. That provides a real advantage in places where the culture is already well-established.
“I feel like it affects everyone, but it only affects our unit if we let it affect us,” Carman said. “Other people that might be less focused, less disciplined, it’ll show up.”
Finding silver linings
For all the potential pitfalls in college football’s new reality, however, there are some potential advantages, too.
At Clemson, Carman sees a small silver lining in the time away from campus. The Tigers have played 30 games in the past two years, a nearly 365-day routine, and a break might be a blessing in disguise.
“We’ve been going nonstop for two years at Clemson,” he said. “My body was worn out and beat up, so I’m taking advantage of this time to recover.”
Stoops is looking at Kentucky’s layoff from a different angle. He said the backbone of his rebuild at the school has been the work in the weight room, and that culture is ingrained in his guys. If they keep up that workload while other teams fall behind — well, that’s a distinct advantage come September.
“Teams and players across the country that do those things, when they come back will be the teams that are successful,” Stoops said.
That’s the takeaway from most coaches at this point. They’ve spent years preaching the same mantra about discipline and accountability, and now it’s time for their players to prove that the lessons have sunk in.
At some point, Day said, there will be football again, and when the ball is snapped for the first time, it’ll be painfully clear who made the most of their time away.
“Character is really shown when nobody else is looking,” Day said, “and this will be the ultimate test of that.”
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