What they are thinking

Bob Asmussen talked to the four FCS coaches in the state as they prepare for the spring season. Here’s what they had to say:

Adam Cushing, Eastern Illinois

1. How did you use the fall and early winter to improve your program?

The NCAA looked at the rules and anybody that didn’t play in the fall had the spring-ball model available to them. We took our 15 practices and we had some 12-hour availability, which is more than the normal eight hours. We got to do more football than we normally would.

We had a really young football team in 2019, so it gave us an opportunity to get bigger and stronger in the weight room.

2. What’s your biggest concern about playing a spring season?

The ability to adjust. The weather is a real thing. Making sure we prepare in a healthy and safe way for the young men as we go outside and practice. That needs to be at the forefront.

3. Do you think spring football should continue in the future, why or why not?

I can see both sides of the argument. I’ve heard it. We’ve had a lot of discussions about it. I can see the value to having that be the time to play. But there’s something traditional about playing in the fall. There’s the ability to play FBS teams in the fall. It fits a little bit better with some of the weather concerns around the country. There’s been some programs that have had to opt out, especially in the northern regions of the country when they don’t have an indoor facility. I don’t think you’ll get 100 percent participation if you continue in the spring.

4. What is your quarterback situation?

We’ve got a returning starter in Harry Woodbery. We’re in a good position. Harry was in a heckuva battle last year, kind of went back and forth with another guy. By midway through the year he was the starter and just got better and better and better. We’re really fortunate to have an experienced guy. He’s got a lot of college snaps under his belt and he’s poised to lead us. We’ve got a really, really talented freshman Otto Kuhns, who we feel really good about. It gives us a different element when he comes in the game, gives us some more quarterback run opportunities and the ability to keep defenses off-balance.

Brock Spack, Illinois State

1. How did you use the fall and early winter to improve your program?

We’re allowed to have a spring practice. So we had a normal spring that we didn’t have last spring. We were allowed to do skill development with our players, which we were never allowed to do, and use footballs. So we did that as well. We lifted weights and trained. That was pretty helpful to make up for time we lost in the preseason. Our school was out at Thanksgiving break and we didn’t come back until Jan. 8. We weren’t allowed to work with them during that time, but they lifted weights and trained on their own. We came back Jan. 8 and started the ramp up period again. We get 25 practices to prepare for our first game. We’re taking practices off. We’re not using all 25 and we’re not in pads every day because we have a second season we’re going to play next fall. We’ve got to be careful with that.

2. What’s your biggest concern about playing a spring season?

We haven’t played a football game in awhile. We were in the playoffs, Dec. 14, 2019 was the last time we played (a 9-3 loss to North Dakota State). We’ve tried to simulate game scenarios in practice. We do that a lot. But nothing’s like playing a game except for playing a game. The game’s played a little faster. We don’t have an indoor facility here, so we’ve had to figure out how to to do that. Walk through indoors and do our team stuff outside. We’ve been on schedule up until this week. It’s going to be cold. We’v got to figure out how we’re going to keep our guys warm. We might go into our track and field facility early in the mornign and do a walk thrugh and come back out and put our pads on for an hour and hurry up and get out of here.

3. Do you think spring football should continue in the future, why or why not?

Some people are talking about it in the NCAA, but I don’t see it for reasons of staying on time with everybody else, like high school football and recruiting. It might be an issue when it comes to big paydays, playing big money games. Our game with Illinois got canceled this fall and that was a lot of money. That means a lot to schools our size. I’m not sure that would be really smart, unless there could be a TV package put together to make up for that. So far, I don’t see that happening.

4. What is your quarterback situation?

Our guy (Brady Davis) left. He was in his sixth year and he didn’t want to take another year. He’s had two ACLs. He decided to give pro football a shot. He played in the Hula Bowl and played pretty well. He’s trying to get in somebody’s camp. We’re very excited about our starter Bryce Jefferson. He played in the three playoff games in ’19. I like him a lot. We’re fortunate Bryce got that playing experience and he’s done really well this fall and in the spring. We’re having a battle for our backup position with a walkon player (Britton Morris) from Rockford and a true freshman from Iowa, Jackson Waring. They are both doing a really good job. We have a kid named Jack Baltz,who is our fourth guy today. We’re in pretty good shape right now. We like where we’re at from a quarterback standpoint.

Jared Elliott, Western Illinois

1. How did you use the fall and early winter to improve your program?

Our thought was to really treat the fall like a nornal spring. For us, it’s all about player development. With all the COVID protocols in place, it wasn’t easy. It was unique and nontraditonal. We were still able to utilize the weight room, try to get our players bigger, faster and stronger. That was an emphasis. We tried to take advantage of the 15 practices. I don’t know if anyone can say they saw it like a typical, nondisturbed spring. There was constant starting and stopping. It was a wrinkle.

2. What’s your biggest concern about playing a spring season?

For every coach, it’s player management. I think everyone has had to reevaluate how you do things because it’s nontraditonal what we’re doing. How you practice, keeping your players fresh, keeping them healthy, keeping them at their best. You’ve got to get a football team ready to play in a shorter period of time than you normally would. And then you throw the weather element into it. We don’t play in a dome. It’s not 75 and sunny every day. That gives us our challenges for sure.

3. Do you think spring football should continue in the future, why or why not?

I completely would oppose that, just me personally. Football is intended to develop your players and prepare them and acclimate them throughout the summer. It’s intended to play in the fall. There are so many talented FCS football players that should be on the same exact schedule in terms of being able to prepare for the pros, pro days, combines, Senior Bowl, all those things that those kids would have to make a choice if you’re playing in the spring.

4. What is your quarterback situation?

We have a solidified starter and a veteran player within our program, Connor Sampson. This is his fifth year in our program. He’s a team captain. Not only an unbelievable young man, but has an amazing handle of our system. Our players have really rallied around that guy. I really like the guy we have backing him up, Henry Ogala. He’s been with us for two years. We’ve seen a lot of growth and development from him.

Nick Hill, Southern Illinois

1. How did you use the fall and early winter to improve your program?

We played a game in the fall (a 20-17 win against Southeast Missouri State), which was big for us. It really taught us a lot and grew our team. I think the practices were more focused with something at the end. We took advantage of that. I feel like we’re in a better spot right now than we would have been if we didn’t play a game. Coming into the spring practices, it was building off that. We have a veteran team. There’s a lot of recall. It’s the same staff. It’s not a new offense or defense.

2. What’s your biggest concern about playing a spring season?

The obvious is COVID. Not only for our team, but the team we’re playing too. We’re just hoping that everything goes well and we can get these games in for our team and our coaches. We test every Wednesday.

3. Do you think spring football should continue in the future, why or why not?

I don’t think that it should continue in the future. Football is meant to be played in the fall. I feel like we play a great brand of football. We’re excitd about the opportunity to play this one unique season in the spring.

4. What is your quarterback situation?

We’ve got a veteran quarterback room. Last year, we started two different guys. Kare Lyles came in in game three and started the rest of the way out. We’re going to have to play better at that position to take the next step.

Nic Baker (former News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year) is doing a good job. He’s going to open the season up as the No. 2 quarterback. This is the best that Nic has been and he’s got a lot of years left. We have full confidence that if he’s got to get in the game, he’ll be able to operate and play at a high level.



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