Extended offseason provides added development time for WIU football
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In a time of uncertain planning, Western Illinois is scheduled to begin its fall football camp next week.
“We’re trying to use the fall the best way that we can,” WIU head coach Jared Elliott told Prairie State Pigskin. “What I mean by that is we’re trying to do everything that we can in terms of playing football. There’s a lot of challenges; it’s so much easier said than done. Keeping everybody cleared and able to participate. All the regulations that we have right now. What we can and can’t do.”
One thing the Leathernecks won’t do is play a fall schedule. This summer, the Missouri Valley Football Conference made the decision to push its league games off for a potential spring slate. In addition, WIU — like its in-state FCS counterparts ISU, EIU and SIU — will not play nonconference opponents in 2020.
Elliott’s message to his team has been clear.
“The most important thing that we keep stressing here for our guys is really utilizing this time. We’re going to get back to football. Hopefully, we’re going to get a camp. We’re going to get fall ball, which is like (traditional) spring, your 15 practices you would have had in the spring. We’re on track for that,” the third-year head coach said.
Weight room warriors
Coming off a challenging season in which the Leathernecks posted just one victory, Elliott sees opportunity with the extended offseason.
“I’ve been very proud of our players,” Elliott said. “What an amazing opportunity not only for our older players, but especially for our young kids. For our true freshmen and some of our other young players, for them to get essentially an extra redshirt year by just development in the weight room (is a bonus).”
Elliott praised his strength and conditioning staff, led by WIU graduate Jon Minnis.
“We have already seen so many gains,” Elliott said. “You take a freshman that’s coming right out of high school, for example, and typically they’re thrown right into fall camp and right into fall season. That true weight room development doesn’t usually start until that winter and spring for that kid. Well now, they’re able to be in the weight room. It’s been amazing to see. The gains they’re making. And our kids have bought into that.
“It’s been a lot of fun to see our guys change their bodies in a good way. They’re putting good weight on. They’re getting stronger, more explosive, powerful. Our strength staff has done an amazing job monitoring all of the COVID protocols by reducing the numbers with the masking and the distancing and cleaning. All those things are required to keep them healthy and safe. Our guys realize that in all reality we’re not playing football competitively against an opponent anytime soon, so our focus is on getting in this weight room to lift and to develop regardless of what year I’m in, what class I’m in. And our kids have bought into that.”
With the Leathernecks’ fall camp tentatively set to begin Monday, Elliott and his staff are preparing to put those gains to a test.
“We’re doing what we can in our mandated NCAA time together. Our skill instruction. Our kids haven’t put pads on in what feels like an eternity. Just being able to do that, hopefully, here in a few weeks is exciting. It will be a lot of fun,” he said.
A fall without football
It’s been 102 years since WIU went a fall without football. Back in 1918, the remnants of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic kept Western off the field on Saturday afternoons.
Elliott, like so many other coaches whose teams aren’t playing now, has found this fall a bit unsettling.
“I watched games with the teams that have been playing a bit. I’ve tried to be a bit of a fan, but it’s not easy. It’s strange,” Elliott said.
Yet, like any true coach, he’s also taking away lessons for his team as he watches others play actual games this fall.
“It all goes back to fundamentals. Every coach is concerned right now because there are regulations on contact. It’s a unique cycle that we’re in,” Elliott said. “You see ball security and tackling and self-inflicted wounds, like the pre-snap penalties. These are all the nuts and bolts of football, the foundational elements of success.
“It’s just a reminder as you watch a lot of these early games where kids aren’t able to tackle as much, we’re limited in contact. We haven’t had the normal amount of preparation that you would typically have to get prepared for a season. These are the things you’re going to battle.”
So should all go according to plan and WIU get in its full fall camp, Elliott realizes it will be a delicate balance of planning practices to improve his team yet all the while maintaining a sense of caution and common sense.
“We can’t line up every practice and have the same amount of contact, so what are things that we can do to make sure that our players are properly prepared to tackle and tackle efficiently, effectively and technically? The same is true for ball security and pre-snap penalties, blocking, takeways,” Elliott said. “It’s made me think of those things. Those base, foundational elements that lead to playing football successfully. You’re seeing a lot of sloppy things in those areas. You always do just in general in the early season. But now it’s been magnified. So those are areas that we’re trying to find creative ways to emphasize this and to get our kids prepared and ready to play.”