As Indiana coach Tom Allen scooted forward in his chair and started his first press conference of fall camp, he couldn’t help but note the difference.
“Good morning, everyone,” Allen said, a crimson IU backdrop behind him, and a Zoom screen full of reporters in front of him. “Feels weird not having you guys all in here. But I guess this is the new normal.”
Allen was in between the first and second halves of his day — the first day his players were officially on the field, practicing, since a pandemic short-circuited their spring.
At first, he was smiling at the oddity of these digital press conferences. But later, as he spoke on the unusual twists and turns of this preseason, the fourth-year coach admitted that not every wrinkle has been pleasant. He’s a creature of habit. He likes to have a plan, and execute it.
The pandemic wiped away many of Allen’s plans. IU was coming off of an eight-win season and returning a roster full of promising talent. Then a pandemic shortened spring practice, contributed to a start-and-stop of the team’s summer workouts in July, and continues to present so many unknowns.
“To be honest, there’s a frustration,” Allen said. “I’m a super organized guy that likes to have everything down. I love routines. I like things to have a rhythm. It was hard to get into a good rhythm. And as soon as we felt we got into a rhythm of doing things, then it got stopped.”
A week removed from a two-week shutdown of voluntary workouts, the Hoosiers head into fall camp with less than a month until their first scheduled game at Wisconsin. That preparation will certainly look different, because Allen can’t envision nearly as much tackling during a pandemic. There can’t be nearly as many “live-goes” with the full squad, battling 11-on-11.
Of course, every other team in the Big Ten is in that boat. But it’s still difficult and different. And the teams that best handle these odd circumstances will give themselves the best chance at success on Saturdays — if there are games to be played.
“We’re gonna focus on one thing, and that’s today,” Allen said. “I can’t control tomorrow. I never have been able to control tomorrow, but more than ever, we have to focus on today.”
In the coming weeks and months, questions will continue to loom. What if the virus emerges within the Hoosiers’ locker room again? How many players will be knocked out, and for how long? What if games are postponed?
In the days leading up to the Hoosiers’ helmets-only practice Thursday, Allen held Zoom calls with players’ parents, trying to answer as many questions as he could. He’s been talking with his players, preaching the need to control what they can control, particularly when it comes to limiting their social activity.
But the unknown is going to be a constant companion throughout this fall camp, which is something the Hoosiers have to get used to. Just figuring out how to hold practices that are both safe and efficient is a chore.
“It’s not simple at all, and we’re trying to figure it out,” Allen said. “We’re trying to go through and say ‘How do you play this sport?’ It is going to affect the way we practice. There’s going to be, I think, less tackling in practice. We’ve got to use sleds a lot, we’ve got to use dummies a lot.
“I see us doing less, you know, live-goes together. We’re gonna have to maximize those kinds of things to prepare our team to play and to stay healthy throughout the season.”
Some players have decided just not to mess with it. Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, star players projected as top NFL draft picks in 2021, have opted out of this coming football season. At IU, no one has announced similar intentions, but it is a topic of conversation.
“This is what I told parents last night, I’ve told our team this many times: If someone doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t feel comfortable playing, there’s no pressure to do that,” Allen said. “Hopefully, we’re creating an environment here where guys feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey, coach, I need to talk to you about something.’”
Otherwise, the Hoosiers are moving forward, with cloth and plastic shields attached to their facemasks. They are going head-to-head, but not as much.
“Doing a lot more smaller groups, more isolated, individual things as much as we can,” Allen said. “At the same time, when we do come together, just trying to maximize our field space.”
The mental piece, in Allen’s opinion, was well-served this spring and summer by frequent Zoom meetings, studying scheme. But in terms of physical reps, the Hoosiers are well behind.
There were no player-led practices this summer. There were no 7-on-7s for Michael Penix Jr. and his receivers to get on the same page. They returned in mid-June for conditioning workouts, but Allen is still going to have to lean on new strength coach Aaron Wellman and his staff to monitor players’ fitness level.
“Those are the challenges, is the timing that you have to have, the reps that you need,” Allen said. “Balancing those reps with, you know, protecting your players and not having those nagging or frustrating soft tissue injuries that can often limit you.”
The main challenge is just making it to Week 1 — if there is a Week 1 — as healthy as possible. That’s both with common injuries and the novel virus.
There is also the issue of team chemistry.
What was lost in the months between March and June was a chance for the Hoosiers to grow camaraderie. Yes, many of the key pieces from last year’s Gator Bowl team return, but not all of them. This is a new team, dealing with unique circumstances.
“Now that we’re together, we got to maximize every minute,” Allen said, “and make sure that we create that rhythm right now and control what we can control.”
(the above image is courtesy of IU athletics)