MISSOULA — On a scale of 0-15, the number of spring football practices Big Sky Conference teams got in before camps were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic varied widely.
Only one of the 13 teams finished all 15 of its allotted practices. Another got in 14 days. Four teams had between two and six practices. Seven teams never took the field for a single snap.
The teams are now on a level playing field in terms having no time in the weight room because the Big Sky shut down practices and workouts through May 15. They all have to get their students adjusted to online learning.
So the difference in practice time and how much teams were able to develop players, adapt to new coaches or implement changes to X’s and O’s could end up having an effect come the fall. Just how much of an impact the shortened spring football period could make is the unknown — that is, if the football season is played at all.
“Personally, I think it makes a tremendous difference,” Montana football coach Bobby Hauck said. “If (spring camp) wasn’t worthwhile and worth doing, then we wouldn’t be doing it. You miss out, you miss out.”
UC Davis was the lone team to complete camp, starting Feb. 12 and ending March 6, just a handful of days before cancellations became widespread across the country in all sports and at all levels. Coach Dan Hawkins holds his practices that early in order to allow athletes the opportunity to pursue internships or study abroad during the spring academic quarter.
Portland State got through 14 of 15 practices from Feb. 19 to March 14. The Vikings only missed out on their spring game, which was canceled because of a ban on public gatherings in the state of Oregon.
For PSU coach Bruce Barnum, the benefit of getting in spring camp is he felt he’s ahead of other league teams in evaluating his roster. He was particularly impressed with his running backs, a group that he said “I’ll match up against anybody. I was jacked about them.”
“I’d love to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to win the Big Sky because we got more practices in,’ but we’re better because, like everybody, we have a lot of young guys that we needed to get their feet yet and get them in the system,” Barnum said.
“I play Montana State, Weber State and Sac State next year, who were all in the playoffs. So, one note, I caught up on practices because they’re practicing all that time they’re in the playoffs and I’m not. So, I evened up the practices. That was a bonus. And it kept some normalcy around here.”
Montana led the group that got in some but not all of the 15 practices, hitting the field for six days after starting March 2.
Northern Colorado was close behind, practicing five times after starting March 3. The Bears could’ve used the full camp with a first-year coach in Ed McCaffrey.
Southern Utah and Weber State each practiced twice before camp was canceled. Wildcats coach Jay Hill saw questions starting to be answered even in that short time, feeling good about where his team was at. But they left 13 practices on the table and now are only communicating with players through phone calls, texts and video chats.
“It’s changed things drastically,” Hill said. “…It’s affecting us but it’s affecting everybody. If we can find the positives in this and find a way to unite the team, we’ll get through it.”
He added: “After missing spring camp, we will still be developing players in the fall and maybe not be as developed, but that’s something that everyone has, and we’re all under similar rules, so I don’t think that anyone will have an advantage. I’m a firm believer we can make something positive out of this situation.”
Montana State was among the seven teams that didn’t practice at all because it had a late start date. The other teams are Idaho, Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and Cal Poly. The Hornets had the latest start date, April 6.
Like UNC, Cal Poly could’ve used the camp with a first-year coach in Beau Baldwin, who led EWU to the 2010 FCS national championship. For him, the key now is to be strategic with staying in contact with players, having position meetings, making sure they stay physically active and are mentally prepared for online classes, which begin April 6.
“It’s definitely not an advantage not to be able to get (spring camp) in, but at the same time everyone is struggling through things right now,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes more important than spring ball is what you do from a weight training standpoint, a lifting standpoint and everything from the culmination of spring ball all the way through to August camp.
“We’re all in the same boat. It’s tough. It’s just a matter of handling whatever you can do and control without getting too stressed and worrying about the things you can’t control.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.
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