Leathernecks adjust to winter preseason football

Jared Elliott said it’s easy to get snow off the artificial turf at Western Illinois University’s football field.

Ice, though, is something entirely different, the Leathernecks’ coach said with a laugh during Monday’s virtual media day, noting the winter storm that was bearing down on the area.

Usually, his weather concerns for preseason practice are more about how hot it’s going to be, or whether there’s rain in the forecast.

Instead, it’s about snow potential and wind chills.

Welcome to a spring football season.

It’s going to be an unusual season for the Leathernecks and the other 90-plus teams in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision that are playing a spring season this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

FCS teams sat out the fall, opting instead for a condensed spring season that will conclude with a 16-team playoff to decide a national champion.

Western Illinois and the Missouri Valley Football Conference will play an 8-game conference-only schedule. The Leathernecks open the season on Feb. 19 at South Dakota, and will play four home games — Missouri State (Feb. 27), North Dakota (March 13), Northern Iowa (March 27) and Youngstown State (April 3).

Elliott acknowledged the strangeness.

“Every coach, I don’t care what sport it is, we’re creatures of habit,” he said. “You get on a schedule, and you’re used to it from year to year. I think that part has been very unique.

“But having said that, football is football. When we’re in meetings, when we’re out there on the field, it feels normal. Football is football. It feels like you’re making a late-November, December playoff run.”

Still, the spring season has its challenges beyond the weather. A normal preseason camp would be conducted in August, when the players aren’t in school. Now, Elliott must prepare for the season while working around players’ academic schedules.

“We’re used to having our players 24-7, morning to night, in football,” Elliott said.

“We’re trying to install, and get things taught, in a much watered-down, condensed time.”

Western Illinois, coming off a 1-11 season in 2019 in Elliott’s second season as head coach, didn’t get to practice in the spring because of the pandemic, and there were no summer workouts. The Leathernecks did get 15 practices in the fall, a schedule they would have had in the spring.

But while the Leathernecks were working out, the college football world at the Football Bowl Subdivision level went on.“I thought the fall was really hard on us,” Elliott said. “ thought the fall was really hard on us as a staff, it was really hard on the team.

When they’re looking around and seeing their buddies that they played high school ball with who now play at Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, and they’re playing, and we’re watching those guys on Saturdays … I thought it was hard. It was heavy. It just had a heavier feeling. And I think that’s natural. 

“First fall they’re not playing football. And not only are they not playing football, they go home and sit on their couch and watch their friends do it. And I don’t think that’s easy for anybody.”

“It was tough,” quarterback Connor Sampson said. “You’re sitting there, you’re doing basically spring ball — lifting every day, practicing every day. But on weekends, you’re sitting there on Saturdays like, ‘Wow, people are playing.’ It’s tough to sit back and watch that.

“But, you know, you’ve got to respect everything that’s going on, and just look forward to the future.”It’s that kind of attitude that Elliott appreciates.

“I’m having more fun right now than I’ve ever had,” he said. “And I feel it from the players. That part of it has been so refreshing.”

“It’s very obvious the energy level in practice,” Sampson said. “It’s a big change.”

“As players, this is what we’re trained for, this is what we’re made to do,” running back DeShon Gavin said.

The Leathernecks’ season will begin in a month — better late, they said, then never.

“I think we’ve had a good start,” Elliott said. “We still have a long way to go.”

John Bohnenkamp is an award-winning sports reporter and contributor to the Pen City Current

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