HELENA  After a year unlike any other that pushed Carroll’s football season to the spring of 2021, the Saints have been more than eager to return to a sense of normalcy this summer.

“It’s been very similar to 2019, nothing like last year,” Saints head football coach Troy Purcell said. “Then again, we did have some similarity to last year, it’s just been no pod groups. We did the same workouts [in 2020] that we did this year. Fewer guys because of COVID [last year], some were here, some weren’t, some were quarantined. I really feel that we’re back to where we were [before COVID] since May.”

Working out in small groups has largely been replaced with team workouts and lifting sessions as COVID numbers have dropped and vaccination rates have climbed. Masks have also been ditched for the most part and players have had opportunities to go through skills drills and some quarterback-wide receiver work this summer.

“I was talking with my roommates the other day and it feels like we were really, really young the last time we had a normal summer schedule,” Carroll linebacker Rex Irby said. “We’re just coming in here in the mornings, working out and hanging out with all the guys and not having to pod up, not having to do any of that. We can give each other high-fives, we can hug each other.

“It feels back to normal and it’s great. I can’t wait for fall camp to be back to normal and play football in the fall.”

With August fast approaching, there is only about two weeks remaining before Carroll begins fall camp. That is when most of the incoming freshman class is scheduled to report, but Purcell said the majority of the roster is back in town and preparing for the fall.

“I would say 95 percent of our guys are here right now,” Purcell said. “True freshmen will be coming in on the third and fourth [of August], so we’ll have our 115-player roster at that time. Fall camp is 20 days before school starts, so that’s going to be something we haven’t had before, having that much time with the guys.”

Building cardio is top priority for the Saints’ roster at this point in the off-season. With the heat and smoke Helena is experiencing making things a bit tougher, working through that to get ready for the season is key.

Carroll is coming off a spring season that saw the program accomplish two things for the first time since 2014. At 3-1, the Saints captured a share of the Frontier Conference Championship, earning the right to represent the league in the NAIA Football Championship Series. Carroll fell to Morningside in the first round, but just getting that playoff experience helped with team mindset this summer.

“I think it really helped us have a vision that what we’re doing here running in the morning is for a purpose and that purpose has always been to go 1-0 each week and win the conference...I think it raised the standard for our goals and our expectations,” Irby said. “Our expectations for ourselves and how we carry ourselves in practice and how we lift is way higher than when I first got here three years ago. I think that the bar is being heightened everyday and our floor is way higher than it used to be.”

Players like Irby are ones stepping into leadership roles for Carroll this year. He was voted a team captain by his teammates before the spring and booked the second-most tackles on the roster. With the graduation of Alex Hoffman, Tanner Steele and Nate McGree, the coaching staff is looking for leaders to assert themselves ahead of the season.

“A lot of this summer development is [finding out] who your leaders are,” Purcell said. “Who is going to step up in a positive and encouraging way to help lead this team...That’ll be something with a young group of guys to see who’s going to grab ahold of this team and take charge.”

Carroll is little more than a month away from kicking off its 10-game conference slate and returning to football in the fall. The Saints go on the road Aug. 28 against Montana Western before returning home against Montana Tech on Sept. 4.

Email Daniel Shepard at daniel.shepard@406mtsports.com or find him on Twitter @IR_DanielS.

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