Spring is one of the most important stretches of the calendar for college football teams. With no games looming, coaches are able to drill their players on the fundamentals of the playbook and position-specific techniques. The team begins integrating recently enrolled freshmen into the program's culture and starts adjusting to life without departed seniors.
This year, none of that is happening. Spring practices have been canceled in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and teams are scrambling to find ways to stay connected to their players. At Indiana, coach Tom Allen is trying to build on the program's best season in a quarter-century, but now the focus has shifted to keeping everyone healthy.
“The momentum from the (Gator) Bowl game (against Tennessee on Jan. 2) and then the weight room work that was put in after (the players) returned from campus after that game, it felt like we had so much carryover and it was a seamless step into the next phase of our program development,” Allen said. “Yeah, (the cancellation) was a little disappointing, but at the same time, as I told our guys, we don't blink.”
“The top of the list is the physical health (of our players),” Allen added, noting that no Indiana football players have tested positive for the virus. “At this point we're in good shape with that.”
Indiana went 8-5 in 2019 and the unexpected success prompted an exodus of some crucial assistant coaches. Among the most important departures was strength coach David Ballou, who took the same job at Alabama.
Finding a capable replacement for Ballou was an offseason key for Allen and he believes he accomplished that when he hired Aaron Wellman, a West Noble graduate who had been the strength coach with the New York Giants.
Wellman, whom Indiana made the third-highest-paid strength coach in college football, will have to prove his worth immediately, helping players stay in shape virtually.
He has developed workouts for players on a case-by-case basis, designing regimens based on the equipment each player has available at home, even if it's only a small set of dumbbells. The workouts are provided through an app, which allows the players easy access to them and allows Wellman and Allen to track to their progress.
“Our charge from coach Allen is just, 'Hey, let's do this better than every other program in the country,' and that's certainly what we're trying to do,” Wellman said. “It's a lot of virtual meetings.
“For me it's trying to individualize workouts from a distance, which involves a lot of communication with the athletes. Our athletes know that I'm on call 24 hours a day for them.”
One of the most difficult tasks for Indiana's coaching staff will be getting freshmen up to speed without the benefit of spring practice and potentially summer workouts. Those freshmen include spring enrollees, such as Bishop Dwenger graduate Luke Wiginton, and those who had planned on waiting until the summer to get to Bloomington, such as former Snider star Randy Holtz.
“They're probably getting the biggest change in what you wanted them to get because they left home early for a reason, to be able to have these extra spring practices and have the extra workouts with the strength staff and all those extra things that they are not getting to do now,” Allen said of the early enrollees.
“You group them in with our current players, but at the same time they're not as far along as our current players. So we've had to adapt with them to get them up to speed.”
Keeping all the players up to speed is everyone's challenge for the foreseeable future.