POCATELLO — Idaho State’s spring football practices were scheduled to start Tuesday.
But, in a world slowed by the novel coronavirus pandemic that continues to sweep the globe, schedules don’t really mean much anymore.
The Bengals’ spring schedule, as well as that of many other teams in the Big Sky Conference, was wiped out by a March 23 announcement from the Big Sky that canceled practices and workouts for every conference team through May 15.
“It came through, they said May 15, and it was like, ‘Eh, this ain’t happening,’” ISU head football coach Rob Phenicie said Monday. “So we don’t stress about it. Just get what you can get done with distance, meetings and stuff, but that’s just the way it’s going to be. Do the best you can with what you got.”
Several other Big Sky teams had started their spring practices by the time the March 23 edict — and an earlier one, on March 18, that suspended all practices through April 3 — came down, but the Bengals were still over a week away from beginning theirs.
Instead of the hype of spring ball, the Idaho State coaching staff and players were shunted instead into a period of adjustment and uncertainty, in which they’re still trying to work as normally as possible despite not knowing what the fall season will look like — or even when they’ll be allowed to practice again.
”Just tell us what, when and where, and we’ll get ready to go,” Phenicie said. “I know the kids were all anxious. It wasn’t a surprise, I wouldn’t expect anything less from this team, but they were all really very upset that spring ball got canceled. ... That’s a great sign that these guys were chomping at the bit to get out there on the field.”
The pandemic might continue through the summer and into the fall, which could force the college football schedule into unprecedented contortions, such as starting the season in October or even later. Phenicie estimated that, in a scenario like that, teams would need “a month, minimum” to get ready.
If the pandemic lessened by summer, allowing teams to make up for missed spring practices, he pointed out that rules would be needed to mitigate the gap in practice time between teams like Idaho State, which hadn’t started spring ball, and others like UC Davis, which completed its full allotment of 15 spring practices before things shut down.
”There’s a lot of preparation that goes into it, a lot of teaching that goes into it,” Phenicie said. “An idea out there that I kind of like is, the NFL has what they call OTAs (organized team activities). They’ll start out with 15 OTAs during the summer. That’s the amount of spring practices you have, and if some teams have had their spring practices, then they lose that many OTAs. I think that’s important because football is so specific in terms of the skillset, what you have to do. They need to have some type of provision.”
The coronavirus also affected recruiting. On March 13, the NCAA suspended all in-person recruiting — both coaches going on the road and athletes visiting campuses — until April 15.
The ISU football coaches were not planning to kick their 2021 recruiting efforts into high gear until after spring ball ended on April 25, when they could go back on the road to visit high schools and junior colleges.
Instead, they were mostly in an evaluation and identification period, combing through tape to see which players they might be interested in.
That’s continued, but with several coronavirus-related modifications. The Bengals have a database of recruits, in which a coach can mark down what tape he’s watched and his thoughts on players.
The staff still meets to discuss players, but those meetings are strictly over Zoom, a teleconference app, rather than around a table.
And to get in touch with players — which is still allowed, as long as it’s done via phone or email, rather than in person — ISU staff members have to dig up their high school coaches’ contact info manually, rather than going through the school, since all of them are closed.
“For us, nothing has really changed in terms of what we’re doing, other than instead of us all sitting in the office as a staff, now we have to go through a pipeline,” Phenicie said. “(Offensive line coach) Mike Philipp looks at a guy and (offensive coordinator) Mike Ferriter looks at a guy and then I look at him. Then we’ll have a staff meeting every couple days or so and we’ll talk about guys that we want to offer. You have to be on top of your game though, watching their film. ... We have a good system on our computer where everything’s consolidated into this one program, so I can go on there and look at my name and say, OK, I’m going to look at this guy and this guy and this guy. And type in my evaluation, and everybody can see it.”
ISU brought in a number of transfers in the winter, including former Wyoming quarterback Tyler Vander Waal. Also expected to contribute right away are junior college defensive backs Jayden Dawson, Cam Davis and Jacob Jones, as well as offensive linemen Tyler Clemons and Sam Tapia.
All made positive impressions on the coaching staff in winter conditioning.
“Jacob Jones and Jayden Dawson, during our winter workouts, were just unbelievable in terms of their effort and their want-to, Cam Davis too,” Phenicie said. “Those kids are all hungry, they all want to get going on this stuff. Vander Waal has texted me a couple times from California, just like, ‘Man, this really sucks, doesn’t it?’ He’s itching to get going too. But the JC kids were all doing excellent academically, excellent in the weight room, excellent in conditioning and all that stuff.”
Not having spring practices will affect the transfers, who will have less time and fewer reps to get comfortable with ISU’s system.
Pro Day Canceled
Included in the NCAA’s suspension of spring activities were school-sponsored pro days, which will affect a handful of 2019 seniors.
Ten former Idaho State players were scheduled to work out at the Bengals’ pro day on April 3 in hopes of impressing pro scouts.
With the NFL Draft still scheduled for April 23-25, there’s no time to reschedule, even if the coronavirus does subside and activities are able to resume on May 15.
Players may still go through private pro days and post the results, which several other Big Sky players have done in recent days.
Nine players who were seniors in 2019 were slated to work out on April 3 — defensive backs Adkin Aguirre, Caleb Brown and Jay Irvine, wide receivers Michael Dean and Mitch Gueller, linebackers Kody Graves and Luke Holloway, offensive lineman Jake Molenaar and running back Ty Flanagan.
Former Idaho State quarterback Tanner Gueller, who exhausted his eligibility after the 2018 season, was also supposed to work out at the pro day.