CHAMPAIGN — Suddenly, and sadly, the college football season is in doubt.
In the time of COVID-19, we are constantly on the lookout for signs of trouble. Plenty exist.
Rumors flew Saturday morning after the Big Ten Conference put a pause on contact in practice.
In a statement, the league said:
“The Big Ten Conference announced (Saturday), based on the advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, that, until further notice, all institutions will remain in the first two days of the acclimatization period in football (i.e., helmets shall be the only piece of protective equipment student-athletes may wear) as we continue to transition prudently through preseason practice.”
That is not good news, college football fans. Especially on top of the announcement by the Mid-American Conference on Saturday it won’t play football in the fall.
Illinois was scheduled to host MAC school Bowling Green until the Big Ten eliminated the nonconference part of the season.
“I would like everybody who wants to play football to have an opportunity to play football,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said Saturday afternoon. “I don’t know all the circumstances that led up to that. I can’t say that’s a great, happy day when you have people who want to play football and circumstances won’t allow us to do that. Normally, falls are about playing ball. The MAC has an honored tradition of playing ball. We’ve played MAC teams.”
You can put Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith in the “let’s get back on the field” camp.
“We all want to play,” the third-year coordinator said. “It’s why we’re coaching, do this for a living. God bless my wife (Charlene). I can’t do anything else. I can’t build a house. I can’t fix a car.”
But he can coach football.
“When you don’t have the opportunity to do that, it leaves you wandering aimlesly thinking, ‘What do we do?’ Rod Smith said. “That’s part of the fear. You want to be able to impact young kids’ lives. It’s always the fear of the unknown.”
To their credit, both coaches are remaining optimistic.
“I try to dwell on the positive side,” Rod Smith said. “I’m a person of faith. I just think things will happen for a reason and it’s meant to be. If we’re not (playing), there’s a reason. But there will be another day that we will play. All we can do is prepare every day and get ready for this season.”
No reason to react before all the information is in.
“We hit the pause button (Saturday) morning on having our first day with pads,” Lovie Smith said. “The approach that we take each day is that whatever we’re presented with is what we’re going to do.
“We missed our spring practice, so there’s a lot of fundamental work we need to get done. We had another good non-padded practice. (Sunday) we plan on practicing the same way until someone tells us otherwise.”
Lovie Smith is prepared this season to be flexible.
“Things could change at any moment,” he said.
The head coach got a two-hour notice on the switch for Saturday. That was enough time for the staff to adjust.
“We’ve gone through a similar practice the last couple of days, so we continued to do the same thing,” Lovie Smith said. “You have to anticipate things like this happening so it doesn’t throw you off that much.”
The opener against Ohio State is scheduled for Sept. 3, less than four weeks away.
How many practices does Lovie Smith think the team needs to be ready?
“The only way you can approach this is, ‘How many ever we can get,’” the fifth-year Illinois coach said. “If our opponent was operating under different rules, it would be different. It’s not. We’re all on the same rules, dealing with the same issues.”
Some have suggested the college season be delayed until the spring.
“We’re practicing football right now,” Lovie Smith said. “We want to play. They want to play. If they tell us we can’t play right now, when’s the next time we can play? If that’s the spring, so be it. Eventually, we’re going to have football, so we’re going to embrace that time whenever it comes.”
The Big Ten coaches have been meeting weekly since April. They have talked with the league’s athletic directors and commissioner Kevin Warren.
“In the end, we as coaches aren’t making many of those decisions,” Lovie Smith said.
Smith said he is on the same page as Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman.
“The heads of universities are going to make these kind of decisions,” Smith said. “We realize that.”
At practice, the Illinois players and coaches are wearing face coverings and social distancing.
“I tell our guys I’m going to coach them and I’m going to try to treat them like everybody’s got it,” Rod Smith said. “I’m going to make sure I’m cautious like everybody else.”
The coaches are doing their part while the players are with them. They are counting on the Illini to do the right things away from Memorial Stadium.
“So much is at stake here,” Rod Smith said.
Looking goodTailback Mike Epstein missed the bulk of the 2019 after suffering a knee injury in the season opener. Rod Smith is thrilled to have Epstein return at full strength.
“Mike is different when he’s healthy and he makes us complete,” Rod Smith said. “He’s that back that can run between the tackles. He’s going to get outside. He’s really good with the ball and route receiver as well. Mike’s a complete back.”
The Illinois offense will have a full season of Chase Brown after the tailback transferred from Western Michigan.
“Right now, I’ve been pleased with his progress,” Rod Smith said. “He seems like he’s really studied his role.”
Backup planEventually, Illinois will select a No. 2 quarterback behind Brandon Peters.
Isaiah Williams returns for his second season. The highly-touted recruit from St. Louis is bigger and stronger, Rod Smith said.
“Isaiah is probably one of the smartest guys in the room,” he said. “His best football is by far still ahead of him. He brings a lot of things to the table that other guys don’t have.”
Matt Robinson started twice last season, and Coran Taylor is a redshirt sophomore now.
“There’s a different air of confidence within the unit,” Rod Smith said. “Coran’s looked much better. Matt’s looked pretty good so far as well. I’ve been really pleased with the work these guys have put in.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.