While the Southland Conference might have its virtual media day scheduled for next week, the prospects of FCS football being played this fall appear to be getting slimmer by the day.
Three FCS conferences had canceled fall sports as of Thursday afternoon, with multiple reports stating that the CAA will do the same. The Southland still appears set on playing football in the coming months, releasing its preseason all-conference teams on Wednesday, but a spring season is becoming more of a possibility with each league that opts out of fall sports.
Sam Houston State head football coach K.C. Keeler joined the Item Insider podcast on Thursday to talk about an array of topics, including what a spring season could look like for the FCS. The longtime coach also discussed the challenges his team has faced in recent months, the growth of junior quarterback Eric Schmid and why he believes the Bearkats are poised to thrive amid adversity whenever the upcoming season is played.
Below is a glimpse into that interview, which can be heard in its entirety at itemonline.com/pods or wherever you listen to your podcasts:
Criswell: It seems like there's as much uncertainty now as there was when things started shutting down about four months ago. What has been the most challenging part — over the course of the past few months, and as we get closer to what we hope is the college football season — about navigating this whole situation?
Keeler: Part of it is we're just so used to being a part of our players' lives in-person, seeing them in the office, in the weight room, in study hall and on the field. Now, we're really keeping a distance. I'm very cautious about things. We said to our players in the very first Zoom meeting we had as a team to be prepared for us to move a little slower than most, because we took them in as part of our family. Coaching is just a vehicle for me to be a mentor, teacher and role model, and we truly try to treat these young men like part of our families. There's just so much uncertainty right now that we don't want to go rushing back and do something that we're all going to look back and wonder why we did that.
Our main purpose right now has been to keep them on track academically, and now that we have 60 of those guys back on campus, just try to get them in shape. I've kept the staff away from the players. Now we can meet with them on the field for about 25 minutes or so doing individual work — all that is physically distanced — but right now our big focus is getting our players back in shape. I don't think anyone realized how poorly conditioned our players would be when they came back. Being a former Division III coach, you look back and say, 'OK, we didn't have our kids back for the summer time,' but our players could go to their high school weight room. They could go to the local gym or get on a field and run,
There's been varying stages of shutting down in Texas and across the country. (Junior running back) Ramon Jefferson was pretty much locked in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York for about a month and a half. His getting out of the apartment was literally to go get food from the grocery store and come right back. So we've had varying degrees of all this taking place, and I think we were surprised how unprepared we are physically — and mentally, because you get soft if you aren't doing a whole lot. Right now, we're really putting it in strength coach Parker Whiteman's hands and saying, 'Let's get some semblance of conditioning going on.'
Criswell: For you as a longtime coach, how strange is it to be preparing for the season with the biggest focus being on conditioning? I've talked to high school coaches that have had to shut down workouts, and it's not so much teaching them X's and O's — it's them getting their feet under them so that if you have season, they're in healthy shape for it.
Keeler: There's going to be a new normal whether we play in the fall or have a spring season, and that new normal is — until there are some therapeutics we're comfortable with, until there's a vaccine, until we have more answers — we're doing almost everything through Zoom. We have a team meeting on July 24, and we're going to be doing that at 8:30 p.m. outside in Bowers Stadium, physically distanced from everybody. Besides that, we're doing everything on Zoom.We don't plan on using our team room, we don't plan on having in-person meetings, and it's the same thing with the locker room.
We're just trying to be prudent and put our players in the best position to have a season, but not put them in harm’s way. Locker rooms just don't make a lot of sense, so we're working on getting tents ... and the nice thing about where we are, most of our players are within a 10-minute walk of the facility. They'll walk in, and they'll wear their mask if they need to go inside and get treatment. We're extending the treatment area into our team room now to give us a huge area for rehab and taping, so there's going to be a new normal until we can get this thing figured out. The people I work for at Sam Houston State are very concerned about our players' safety, and I'm very concerned about our players' safety.
The safety and well-being of our players comes first, and then we'll figure out winning football games after that. I'm of the mindset that the single worst thing we can do is start a season, then stop a season. If we're going to start a season, we need to be able to complete it. However that season is going to look, the worst thing we can do is start it then stop it. That's why I'm maybe a little more cautious than most. I'm a little older than most coaches, so I've seen a little more life. We're moving slowly at our pace, but we're making some progress — and hopefully we'll get a chance to play some football.
Criswell: You talk about the importance of not starting a season once it gets started, and we've already seen several conferences suspend or cancel fall sports. Do you see the spring as a viable option, and almost maybe a preferred option as opposed to rushing things through this fall?
Keeler: I know there's a lot of talk about what first-round draft prospects are going to do in terms of if there's a spring season, but as far as FCS football, I see us training in January and maybe the first week or so of February. I see us playing eight games, conference-only, and you try to really limit your amount of travel. And then you do a 16-team playoff that a few teams are going to have to play into May.
Then you push back your schedule for the next year a little bit, where you aren't going to have a bye week, and might have to take away one of those non-conference games. That way you create a little separation for the teams that played in May until the start of the season, (which would be) more toward the end of September. There's a way of doing it. I don't think the bigs can do it that way, but I think FCS football can do it that way. But again, if we do start the season, we have to be pretty committed that we have some pretty good answers that we're going to be able to finish the season — and I'm not sure if we're there right now.
Criswell: You've talked about the potential of this team and how excited you are about this group. What is it about them that makes you think they might be more equipped to handle an unconventional season than most teams?
Keeler: Well I love what I saw last year. I thought it was one of the best teams I'd ever coached. They had the character, they had the talent and they stuck together during a lot of brutal losses — where if we had one of three quarterbacks healthy in any stretch of imagination, we're probably a 10-2 team. It took us a while to figure out who the quarterback was going to be once we settled in on Eric (Schmid) we felt great, and then he broke his hand. We still had a lot of confidence in Ty (Brock), but Ty hurt his ankle the game before Eric broke his hand. Then you had Mike Dare, who had a great spring and summer, have to get a hip operation. So you take what is probably the best three quarterbacks I've had on one team, and you reduce us down to really not having a quarterback. With that being said, our defense played lights out and I thought we had a dominant offensive line.
I really like the pieces of the puzzle we have coming back. Our question mark is, 'Can we rebuild this offensive line?' I think I have two of the best in the country coming back with Eleasah Anderson and Colby Thomas, and we have to build around those two. If we can, our skill kids are amazing, I think our defense is going to be just as good and Matt McRobert is back as one of the best punters in the nation. There's a lot to be excited about if you're a Bearkat.
Criswell: If and when the season is finally played out, what's going to be the biggest key to winning a Southland Conference championship and getting the program back to where it's been in the past?
Keeler: We look at last year as we were back. We had everything in terms of a team, including the character and perseverance. It's just tough playing football when you lose three quarterbacks. I think this is an extension of last year's team. I really like what we brought from last year into this year.
I think the key for having success for anyone in college football this year is going to be handling the distractions. There are going to be distractions. This thing's not going away anytime soon in terms of us just putting it behind us and not talking about it again, so you have to handle those distractions. If you have to travel 180 miles the day of a game because we want to limit the number of overnight games, that's what you do. You don't complain about it. You don't worry about it. Someone else is going to have to do the same thing later or earlier in the season. Those are the things you have to talk to your team about. You can't make excuses and have distractions. If you want to win a championship you have to go to work everyday and do the things you have to do.
There are going to be some challenges, and I think the teams that are most prepared to handle these challenges are the teams with high character. What I saw last year was a team that had amazing character. For us to handle the disappointments we had and keep on coming back out the way we did ... it was testament to the kind of kids we have in the program. I feel great about this upcoming year in terms of the team we have, and I'm anxious to get us on the field and play some football.