Around this time of the year, the sound of clashing pads as the leaves on trees start to turn usually signals a fall football season is right around the corner. This time around, the pads will remain on the practice field due to COVID-19, which has led the football players of the Big Sky Conference to wait a whole semester before they see a gameday.
Due to the pandemic, the president’s council decided on Aug. 6 it would be best to postpone the fall 2020 football season until spring 2021. This includes all sports that would’ve taken place in the fall such as men’s and women’s cross country, soccer and volleyball.
“While I am confident that our conference is making the right decision for the health and safety of our student-athletes, it breaks my heart knowing how disappointing this will be to all of them who were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to compete this fall,” commissioner Tom Wistrcill said.
The decision also included the cancellation of all non-conference games. For the NAU football team, this includes the previously scheduled ASU and South Dakota game. For NAU head coach Chris Ball, the main concern during this time is the health of his players and to take every chance they are given to prepare for the upcoming season.
“All we can do is make the best of the situation and continue to make sure our players' safety and health is the number one [concern],” Ball said. “ If we get an opportunity to go out and continue to get better as a football team, that is what we are going to take advantage of.”
With the season postponed, the Lumberjacks had to change their mindset from preparing for a game in a couple of weeks to jumping back into the spring training-type of practices. Even with the shutdown, Ball and his staff made sure the players were in the loop and were getting the information they needed in order to come prepared when they returned to practice or participated in voluntary workouts.
“We have been keeping in touch with our players since March,” Ball said. “It’s not like all of a sudden we just came back together. We have been keeping in touch with them, talking with them and Zooming with them.”
Ball told the players to focus on their attitudes and to worry about the things they can control. He calls it the green light, red light mentality. Red lights are the obstacles they shouldn’t stress about, because they are out of their control. The green light indicates the “go, get after it” mentality. The attitude and efforts the players put in are the things he told them they need to focus on.
For redshirt senior wide receiver Stacy Chukwumezie, the break benefits the team when it comes to gaining muscle in the weight room.
“This break is kind of a blessing,” Chuckwumezie said. “We’re just building our bodies even more so that when we get to the season, we’re going to be that much more ready.”
The spring season brings more than just the advantage of getting bigger in the weight room, though. The weather for the Lumberjacks at home isn’t a factor because they play indoors, but when they go on the road the weather has played a role in three games where it rained last season.
“Our team is a team — for some reason — that performs better when the environment around us is happy-go-lucky,” Chukwumezie said. “You can look back at our last season and see the Montana State game, the Weber State game and the Illinois State game, we started performing poorly when it started raining in all three of those games.”
Although the players want to play, Ball said they are ready whenever the rules allow it and once they get the opportunity to go out and compete, they will.
Something that has improved in the offseason is the depth on both sides of the ball. All positions will have depth in the case someone goes down with an injury, and the preparation of the team has been a key focus during team competition.
“We are a lot deeper than we were last year. We have some really good new players out of our freshman [class],” Ball said. “Offensively, we have our whole offensive line back and depth at wide receiver. We do need to find a quarterback. We got a great battle going on [right now].”
One of the main focuses during quarantine was the recruitment process. Ball said that they were tackling nine to 10 hour days and focused four of those hours on recruiting, while the other was working with the players themselves.
Even with the possibility of a season not occurring in the spring, Ball said he doesn’t think it will impact the process of getting players to NAU in the future, because they know where the players they want are.
“We have a really good idea of where all the players are,” Ball said. “I don’t think a lot of programs are going to do that. We have done a great job of identifying guys and I think there will be a lot of guys who get overlooked because [other programs] can’t get out and see them.”
From this point on, the goal of the team is to keep preparing for the upcoming season if conditions allow it. There is no set date to when the players will step onto the field for gameday, but they assure us they will be ready.