Spring football practice opened at Oklahoma on Monday, and technically speaking — mathematically, maybe — the Sooners so far in 2021 are exactly where they were in the entirety of 2020.
With one spring practice under their belts.
So given the scope of the last 12 months, given how spring practice was completely dismantled after just one practice last year, given the offseason of Zoom and the in-season of COVID protocols, what kind of goals has defensive coordinator Alex Grinch set for these 15 practices?
“Well, I appreciate the question,” Grinch said, “ … We just had a case study in, ‘Well, we've always had spring football, so why do you do spring?’ We just finished a year where we didn't have that. What did we lose? Was it the competition within position groups? You look back on it and you say, ‘Well, we found a way to have a depth chart.’ So even though maybe we sold that in the past, maybe that's not the critical aspect of things.
“You know, what'd we lose? Do you lose the mental and physical toughness? You try to simulate that in the offseason so much, whether it's in lifting and running, but you're not a track team. So you're simulating hard stuff in running drills for instance, but in the end, does that really simulate what a fourth quarter's like? Well, yes it simulates it, but it's not what it is.
“So I think what we missed was playing the sport, playing the game.”
This year’s practice sessions resume on Wednesday, and there will likely be a feeling of celebration to get that one in.
Grinch borrowed from other sports to explain how not having a month-long spring practice session last year ultimately derailed how prepared the Sooners were to play a 2020 fall season. With so much offseason contact being conducted virtually through video meetings, he feels that so much practical instruction time was lost.
“You turn everything into theory,” Grinch said. “… Let's teach a guy to throw a 90 mph fastball on Zoom. I don't know that a baseball coach would do that.
“I use the NCAA Tournament as an example,” he said. “I've got my elbow in, my eyes on the target and I do a great job with the follow-through, every single ball's going to go in the basket. Well, reality tells you that theory doesn't always equate to elite execution. You have to play the games.
“I want to go putt. I know how to hold a putter, and we can talk about it, but you've got to see it go in the hole and you've got to work through those things and so that constant feedback. So we missed those things. Football's not theory. That's a piece of it.”
Every college football team had their offseason disrupted by the pandemic. Some handled it better than others when the fall season began. Oklahoma was one of the ones that didn’t handle it well, and the Sooners started 0-2 in conference play for the first time in 22 years — but then bounced back to win their sixth consecutive Big 12 championship.
Players on Monday reflected on the utterly bizarre events of March 2020.
“Last year we were definitely shocked by the decision of spring ball being canceled,” said defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas, “that long hiatus of us being home and having to work out at home and doing drills at home.”
“I’m pretty sure everybody was like that: ‘Where do we go from here?’ ” said rush linebacker Nik Bonitto. “Personally, in my life, I've never experienced anything like that. I'm pretty sure we were all like, 'OK, what's next?' Even the coaches, they didn't know what to do. I'm pretty sure we were all shocked at the time. We were all disappointed that we couldn't have a spring practice.”
Said safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, “Whenever we came back for fall camp last year, you could tell that we didn't have a spring ball because it kinda led to us having a slow start into fall camp. And so whenever they told us last year that we were gonna get sent home for a few weeks, I kinda didn't even believe it. Like, we all saw that the NBA shut down and things like that. But I'm like, ‘There's no way they're sending us home for two weeks; and we'll be back in no time.’ I'm just thinking maybe that's just something for right now. Once two weeks led into two months, I'm like, ‘Wow, this thing is actually crazy.’ ”
Monday, then, was a refresher for the players and coaches who fully expect only minor disruptions this year, if any, to not take anything for granted.
“It got taken away from us last year,” Bonitto said. “It definitely made me and my teammates more appreciative of the game for sure.”
“With us being able to have spring this year,” said Turner-Yell, “man, we can't afford to take it for granted. Because we experienced the slow start that we had into fall camp last year, just because we didn't have spring ball. We've got to cherish every single day because COVID is still out there. It's still real. It still has a huge impact on the world. Guys are getting vaccinated and things like that, but the biggest thing is, we still have to know that COVID is out there and it's still real and that it still can affect us in a negative way. We have to stay on our toes with keeping our mask on and things like that.”
Said Thomas, “It’s definitely us using the most of that time, definitely using that extra time for ourselves to get extra film, extra drills and to do more than what the coaches have us doing. To make sure we take the full advantage of what we have in front of us. Like I said, you never know when it can be taken away from us. Last year was a walking testimony of what can happen. It’s great to have this spring ball. So far, we have one practice under our belts. We’ll see if we get more, and I’m excited for it.”
And as for setting actual goals, Grinch believes they may be more metaphysical now than just writing down a list on the whiteboard.
“I think last year provided us an opportunity to look back on it and really be honest with ourselves,” Grinch said. “You don't just check the box because, ‘Oh, now it's spring football and then is just what you do.’
“But it's a great point. What is the aim? If you came out of spring football and you said this, again: more mentally, physically tough, a team that can finish — specific to our side of the ball. You look at our numbers in the fourth quarter versus the first quarter, it's not good enough.
“And again, all that ties in to how do you finish? You're more mentally and physically tough. So that's the big one that we keep circling.”