Lovie Smith, Fighting Illini football making best during COVID-19 pandemic

by Peyton Wesner

At the beginning of the month, March 27 was to mark Fighting Illini football’s fourth spring practice and its IHSA Clinic.

Several weeks later and plans — as all collegiate and professional sports — have changed due to COVID-19.

We had an eight-week program that we finished up Thursday, March 12. That was our last official workout together,” said Illinois head coach Lovie Smith on Friday via teleconference. “We let them do their thing with their families [and] go home until we reported back the first day remotely March 24.”

The football team is not affected academically. As all University of Illinois students, players take classes online and tutors remain remotely available. However, the Big Ten Conference’s suspension of organized team activities drastically affects the strength and workout regimen.

“This is brand new to us,” said head strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. “We are kind of going back to some of the things that we did when we were younger and we didn’t have the kind of equipment.”

Many players have gotten creative with their workouts. From wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe squatting with five-gallon water jugs to center Doug Kramer pushing a pick-up truck, Hernandez is impressed by the commitment.

“I absolutely love it, and I want more of it,” said Hernandez. “It’s really exciting to see how much it matters to these guys to find a way to continue to stay the course.”

Student-athletes are allowed eight hours per week to communicate with their coaching staff. Smith says players are present in Zoom meetings four times a week, two hours at a time. The conversations range between team meetings and position discussions. And, Zoom’s technological capabilities are not inhibiting Smith and coaches from interacting with their players visually.

“The technology that is available now a days — I think you can even gain ground,” said Smith. “Before this virus started attacking our country, we were preparing to have the best football season we’ve had in a long time.”

But, for any football team to have a great campaign, off-season workouts are essential. Fortunately, the Fighting Illini’s Redbox Bowl berth and pre-spring activities make this time a natural recovery period.

“We intentionally want our guys to de-load,” said Hernandez. “The fact that they can just continue to exercise like we would during spring ball at this moment in time is absolutely great.”

Depending on how long COVID-19 affects athletics, however, the summer looms as a crucial period. Players are scheduled for four-to-five weeks off in the summer, which limits their workouts to an individual plan — similar to what is being done now, says Hernandez. Then, June becomes imperative for ramping up activities before training camp.

“When we would start back in June, we’re going to hit the floor running,” emphasized Hernandez. “June is a very important time period for us to start to prepare our bodies for camp.”