Spring very different for local college football programs

  • Jesse Scott was named coach of Wheaton College's football team in January.

    Jesse Scott was named coach of Wheaton College's football team in January. courtesy of Wheaton College

  • North Central College and coach Jeff Thorne won the Division III national football championship in December.

    North Central College and coach Jeff Thorne won the Division III national football championship in December. courtesy of North Central College

  • Jim Schroeder

    Jim Schroeder

 
 
Updated 4/23/2020 9:37 AM

Jesse Scott was all set for his first season of spring football as Wheaton College's head coach.

Not that it's been on his mind or anything.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Right now we're supposed to be five minutes from the start of practice number eight," he said during a phone conversation last week.

The stay-at-home order and the cancellation of the semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive disruption to college football that's struck close to home. Spring football may not be as important as a Saturday afternoon CCIW game in the fall -- Division III players can't even wear pads -- but it remains an important element of building a team.

Coaches begin filling the holes left by graduating seniors. New offensive and defensive schemes are installed. High school recruits get an up-close look at the programs.

But as tough as the adjustment may be to the unexpected social distancing, any good Division III coach knows how to change a game-plan on the fly.

"It's hard to capture what I looked forward to the most," Scott said. "We're still able to get a lot done but it's obviously not the same."

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Momentum

Four months ago in Texas, North Central College coach Jeff Thorne hoisted a trophy over his head to celebrate the Cardinals' first national football championship.

Now, like everyone else, he waits.

So much for building on momentum.

"We just want to make sure everyone is safe, that's the main thing," Thorne said. "We have to do what we have to do."

As innovative as his coaching may be, Thorne's pretty old school. He's not a fan of social media but it's become an invaluable tool as the Cardinals' staff stays in contact with players and recruits.

Thanks to Zoom and Hudl, coaches are able to create a virtual football world. From an Xs and Os standpoint, teams aren't missing out on much.

In other ways, though, the lack of spring football is devastating.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Benedictine coach Jim Schroeder was hired last April and had to hit the ground running. After reversing a 3-7 record to 7-3 in his first season, Schroeder couldn't wait get back at it with a full year of his system in place.

"Nothing is going to replace the on-field experience," he said. "It's hard because we're not together. It's that experience of being on the field together that's so important. So much of what we do is about the experience, so this has been a real upheaval for our guys."

In a coach's first couple years at the helm, it's critical to lay the groundwork of a system and establish expectations. To skip a beat this spring is especially tough on newer coaches.

"It's tough but thank goodness it's not my first year," Schroeder said.

Speaking of that first year, Scott has the advantage of continuity. A 2009 graduate of Wheaton College, he was hired as head coach in January after serving as Mike Swider's assistant since 2010.

A transition that should have been seamless, however, hit a sudden bump with no spring football.

"The sense of team and camaraderie and sacrifice and commitment is what we're missing," Scott said. "Kids don't play football to be in meetings and watch video. They want to be out there on the field."

Crowded boat

Just before "lockdown" became a household word, on an otherwise normal March weekend North Central College welcomed a football recruit from North Carolina

Only three other people were on the plane with him.

It was a definitive sign of what the coming weeks might look like as Thorne and the Cardinals adjusted to the unknown. But at least they weren't alone.

"The fact that every team is in the same boat helps us deal with it," Thorne said. "There's nothing we can do except deal with it the best we can. How you choose to handle it will define how it turns out."

The bulk of the 2020 recruiting class is locked down but there are always loose ends to tie at the Division III level. Recruits need to be on campus to not only get a feel for the school but also to get to know potential teammates.

Benedictine planned Sunday evening spring practices to allow dozens of recruits to visit over the course of five weeks. While virtual tours are readily available and effective, it's just not the same as having cleats on the ground.

"There's a comfort level for kids seeing what it's like and knowing what to expect," Schroeder said. "Our biggest asset with recruiting is our players. We want to put these recruits in front of our players, and we're missing out on that."

Missing out. That seems to be the unfortunate theme of the spring.

With campuses closed indefinitely, there won't be a reunion between Division III college coaches and their players until August at the earliest. If it happens, there will be plenty of time to prepare for the season-opener.

But spring football exists for a reason. For more than a month coaches get to mold the next version of their team.

Phone apps and computer programs can't replace that time together.

"I would love to be with my guys, and the fact that we didn't get to say goodbye to our seniors really hurts," Thorne said. "Whenever we do come back, we need to be ready to go."

• Twitter: @kevin_schmit

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