Jonathan Smith and Oregon State adjusting to football’s new normal

OSU Football head coach Smith encourages the team from the sidelines at Ohio State on Sept. 1, 2018. 

The press conference for Oregon State Football’s head coach Jonathan Smith on April 2 began as they typically do. A general wave of silent anticipation came from a crowd of reporters waiting to get their questions off, but it was also a familiar, friendly environment that Smith has brought to the program.

In concert with his laid back press conference atmosphere, Smith even took the time to fire off a joke before the questions began pouring in. The quip, directed towards Oregon State’s associate athletic director Steve Fenk, was met by Fenk with a drawn out silence that would become familiar for the press conference.

“I don’t think he can hear me,” Smith said.

Fenk was experiencing technical difficulties, the ones that can not always be avoided in the Zoom video call setting that has become the new normal for media events. The inability to receive audio on Fenk’s end was one of a few obstacles that quickly removed the feeling of familiarity from the digital room. 

Reporters dealing with audio delays would often talk over each other, forcing both to stop in synchronicity and turn the presser into a battle of politeness to see which reporter would yield their question first with the key phrase “go ahead,” one that was repeated a handful of times throughout the 15-minute call.

Media, much like the sports teams they cover, are learning how to make the best of unfamiliar circumstances. For Smith and the Beavers football team, athletic play is not scheduled to begin until Sept. 3, but the NCAA’s suspension of athletics has thrown a wrench in how Oregon State will be forced to prepare for the upcoming football season.

Meetings with players and coaches via video conferences and relying on game film without reliable access to training equipment have been a couple of the seemingly endless number of changes Smith and his team have needed to make on the fly. The solutions are not one-to-one replacements, but Smith has found fixes for some of the pressing issues that have come with building a football team in the middle of a global pandemic. 

One of the areas where Smith and his staff have struggled to find a fix, however, is in the loss of spring practices. One of the most important times for conditioning and getting a feel for the team’s incoming players was postponed after a handful of meetings, and Smith might not have a suitable replacement. 

“Most of us didn’t get more than half of our spring ball,” Smith said. “The downside is there’s so much you’re learning about your players. Whether it’s players that you currently had and how much they improved. Younger players that you wanted to see get a lot of reps… you build your schemes off of your talent and [not] knowing where players are at is a tough setback.”

Getting a feel for the players on a roster is impossibly important for a football team, but it may be crucial for the 2020 Beavers now more than ever. With program stalwarts like quarterback Jake Luton and wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins taking their talents into the NFL draft, two productive gaps in the offensive depth chart will be left behind with an incoming class of 20 freshmen and five transfers on their way into the program.

The incoming class of players will be vying for spots like the ones that belonged to Luton and Hodgins, while also competing to carve out roles of their own for next season’s roster. Without spring football being played, they will not get a chance to prove themselves in practice, leaving Smith’s roster looking for ways to improve their game and get ready for when practice eventually returns.

Studying film has been a large part of Smith’s plan to prepare his team for the upcoming season, even while most of the roster is scattered about the country in their various hometowns. The NCAA has allowed up to two hours of virtual film study each week, and while not traditional, Smith is adamant that he and his team have been able to accomplish “a bunch” with it.

“We’re really going through ‘re-installment,’ we put in the first week of spring [practice] and then we’ll be growing,” Smith said. “You’re talking a bunch of scheme that way and fundamentals of their position beyond just the scheme.” 

Mental preparation is one of many aspects that go into getting ready for a football season. But as beneficial as the team’s virtual film sessions have been for the Beavers coaches and players, they can not replace the importance of strength and conditioning. 

While some players have not missed a beat with their strength training, others do not have access to the equipment they would back in Corvallis. Smith and the coaching staff have tried to provide support the best they can, but have their hands tied by the NCAA’s limitation on training during this time.

“We can’t mandate anything, obviously,” Smith said. “We can send some recommendations on ways to stay in shape and then it comes down to the individual guy of being able to do it. And then that goes into all these guys are spread out into different areas, and there’s different availabilities for whether you can go to the park [to train] or not. Whether some guys have a little bit of weight equipment, some guys don’t.”

Smith, like athletes, coaches and about everyone in the world right now, is learning how to adjust on the fly. Shelter-in-place policies have become less of a strong suggestion and more of a requirement, and with strict rules in place, challenges have started to pop up in football and in the world at large.

Not that Smith has not been challenged before. His first job as a college head coach was to come into a one-win Beavers program and revert them to their Fiesta Bowl glory days from back when he was a player. He has faced obstacles to get his team on an upward trajectory, but no amount of playing or coaching could have prepared him for the roadblocks he faces now.

The quarantine and ban on organized sports have affected the standard operating procedure of the team, but it all has also affected the mindset of both Smith and his players. Like for solutions in training, the Oregon State staff has worked on finding ways to keep the mental health of their players afloat in these trying times.

“I think a lot of guys, the ones we’ve touched base with, are in a good place,” Smith said. “Our coaches are talking to them every other day. I think they’re missing each other and missing each other on the day-to-day… I mean, it’s unsettling. It’s different for all of us.”

Different times call for different solutions, but Smith is not alone in learning to adapt on the fly. The sports world and beyond are all looking for ways to overcome these new obstacles, and whatever difficulties arise, Smith and his team have shown they will strive to keep looking for solutions.

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