CHAMPAIGN — For the first time in what seems like forever, Lovie Smith sent the Illinois football team onto the practice field Wednesday in, gasp, full pads.
Yes, the Illini knew what to do. Even though they hadn’t smacked into each other during workouts since December.
That was a global pandemic ago, just before the team lost to Cal in the Redbox Bowl. Ahhh, bowl games. And taking a flight to Cali without getting your temperature checked. Those were the days.
Normally, teams must wait a bit into training camp before the pads go on. As you all know, the 2020 season is anything but normal.
After the start-stop-start-again routine of the summer and early fall, you could hardly blame the players for being excited. Coaches, too.
The gap between contact seems unreal. It’s been 10 months. That’s a long time in a sport noted for its physicality.
“That kind of put it all in perspective,” Smith said.
Of course, the players had kept busy before Wednesday. Hitting was a no-no, especially without the heavy gear. But Smith found other effective ways to help his team improve.
“A lot of good non-padded practices,” he said.
Still, there is no substitute for the real thing, especially with the season opener against No. 19 Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 24.
“(Wednesday) was a good start,” Smith said. “We’re nowhere near game ready, especially for a team like Wisconsin.”
Change of pace
What’s the biggest difference between workouts with or sans pads?
“Tempo,” Smith said. “Pleased with that.”
When the pads go on, the chances for injuries increase. The Illini got through Wednesday’s work unscathed and will continue to knock on wood all fall.
The session gave Smith and his coaches live action to dissect. He couldn’t wait to look at the film.
“Sometimes, you think it went a certain way, but it didn’t go that way,” Smith said.
The players returned to the Smith Center late Wednesday afternoon for meetings.
Smith has to be mindful of the 20-hour rule. That’s how much time the players can spend each week working on football-related activities.
And they are required to take one day off each week. The coaches get no such break. Having the players in pads allows the coaches to see the obvious: hitting. There will be plenty of it during the nine-game Big Ten season.
“It’s not a 7-on-7 league,” Smith said. “It’s not flag football.”
The skill players benefited from the non-padded work. They improved their games without the burden of getting smacked.
Now, they are live again. Not that Smith planned an extended scrimmage the first day. His priority is to make sure the players are healthy for the season.
But some thumping is required.
“Anything related to contact is what you start to see,” Smith said. “Whether that is wide receivers going against DBs, getting off of blocks.”
He also got a feel for the offensive and defensive lines. He observed the pass rush and the run blocking.
Every bit of knowledge helps the staff moving forward.
Before Wednesday, Smith had never conducted a padded practice during a pandemic.
“Nothing,” Smith said. “Once you get to the heart of real football, there’s not anything different.”
A few physical distinctions exist. The coaches wear face coverings throughout the workout, and social distancing is a must.
The players and coaches are tested for COVID-19 every morning. By the time they arrive at the field, they have all been cleared.
It certainly adds comfort in a time of great stress. One fewer worry for the players and coaches.
Soon, the preparation turns to Wisconsin. The Badgers lost talented running back Jonathan Taylor to the NFL, but will be their usual physical selves.
Paul Chryst continues a tradition started by legend Barry Alvarez.
“We have tough players here. They have tough players,” Smith said. “We’ve played them before. They haven’t changed. They have their same offensive and defensive systems in place.
“We know each other well. We’re both going to get ready to go.”