MISSOULA — A slight sense of normalcy returned at the University of Montana when the Grizzly football team got back to the field for its first official practice in 208 days last Wednesday.
For coaches and players, it's a time to get everyone acclimated and get acclimated to everyone as the Griz prepare for a potential spring season.
“It’s great to be back out there,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said Tuesday during a Zoom conference call, which he noted as “odd” instead of doing an in-person news conference and which stands as another reminder that things are still far from being completely normal.
“I think the guys are excited to get back out on the field, work a little football. It’s been a long time since we’ve been out there, so yeah, it’s been good.”
The longer-than-usual layoff between practices is the result of the coronavirus pandemic, which cut UM’s spring ball short March 11. Players were initially sent home when campus was closed, they returned for voluntary workouts in June, had their season postponed to the spring in early August and began football activities, a watered-down version of practice, later that month.
Naturally, the limited time together over the past seven months means there’s ample work to be done now that the NCAA has granted fall practice time to teams that’ll be playing in the spring. In-person time is needed to enhance player development, Hauck said, noting that a lack of that inhibits players’ growth.
“We’re not in optimum condition, and we’re not in optimum playing shape in terms of execution and all that,” he said. “We look like a team that hasn’t been on the field since March. That’s what we look like.”
The Griz have 15 practices during a time that's termed “fall ball” but is essentially the same calendar schedule they’d do during spring camp. They have 20 hours a week they can use on practices, meetings and weight training. They began padded practices Monday after going through their obligatory three days of non-padded practices.
The Griz got a late start on practices this fall, which the NCAA allowed to begin Sept. 21 and which Montana State wrapped up Saturday. The UM athletic department shut down The Champion Center for four days last month when it had athletes "in a variety of sports" placed into quarantine and isolation because they had a positive COVID-19 test or were labeled as a close contact. Some football players voiced their displeasure about the local health department’s quarantine rules on social media and later apologized.
Hauck estimated the team has had about 70 players participating in practices. They have 107 listed on their online roster, and he noted they’ve retained all players, save for maybe one, since the Big Sky Conference announced in August that it’ll be playing in the spring.
Even without the whole team practicing yet, the goal for Hauck and Co. is a simple one during these practices.
“We need to get better,” Hauck said. “If we’re going to win to the degree we want to, we have to get better.”
But when will the Griz have the opportunity to win a game? That’s the question that still needs an answer. The NCAA has approved spring playoffs for the FCS, but the Big Sky has yet to unveil a regular-season schedule.
Numerous obstacles impede a spring season. One is practicing and playing in winter weather in Montana in January and February. Inclement weather is less likely to be a major factor during these fall practices because Hauck expects they’ll “be pretty much wrapped up toward the end of October.”
He noted that the team will scrimmage during practices. When asked if they’ll have a scrimmage similar to their Spring Game at the conclusion of spring camp each April, Hauck said, “I hope it’ll be better than that.”
As the Griz await a date and opponent for their next game, their focus is on themselves so they’re in a position to be ready for whenever, whoever and wherever they play.
“If we have a spring season, we’re going to do our best to be our best then,” Hauck said. “I don’t know that that’s attainable in the current (environment). I mean, things have to change for that to happen.
“We’re starting to run out of time to maximize that, but it’s still attainable. So, we’ll see. If we play a spring season, we’re going to try to win.”