After an anything-but-ordinary summer, the NIU football team kicked off anything-but-ordinary fall practices on Friday ahead of a sure to be anything-but-ordinary season.
The practice was split into two different times with different groups in each to limit contact, coach Thomas Hammock said.
"It felt strange," said cornerback Dillon Thomas in a phone interview after practice, as media was not allowed at the practice at any point for photos or interviews. "Coaches leading up to this week did a good job about what to expect. We were prepared in knowing it was going to be half and half. For us it was a lot of 7-on-7 and 1-on-1. It was all to different without having the D-line around. But practice is practice and it's good being out here the first day."
Hammock said the nature of the workout made it impossible to single out anyone who stood out to him.
"We're really not making it a very competitive situation," Hammock said. "We working on developing, fundamentals, teachings, that sort of thing moreso than competing against one another. We're taking our time to teach and install or reteach rather than make it a competitive type situation."
The practices amid among uncertainty of the MAC season. The league is among the last FBS conferences to announce fall plans, whether that be a season as normal, conference-only games, or something else.
Wide receiver Cole Tucker, a DeKalb graduate, said his focus isn't on what happens in a MAC boardroom.
"We'll play whenever," Tucker said. "Spring, fall, December. We'll play whenever they want us to."
Thomas equated it to an assignment.
"I wouldn't say the level of uncertainty has risen. It's just like when you have a due date," Thomas said. "We just have to figure out ways to save our body for September, October or even the spring. It's about ways to stay focused on staying healthy and getting locked in when we have that first date."
As it stands now, the first game on the NIU schedule is September 19th at Eastern Michigan. Earlier games against Rhode Island and Maryland have been canceled, as has the Sept. 26 game at Iowa.
With 60 freshmen on the roster, Hammock said the focus isn't on when the season starts.
"It doesn't affect our prep," Hammock said. "One thing we've talked about with our team is we have 60-plus freshmen on our roster. What a great time to develop these young guys and have the quality of work get better. The start of the season has no bearing on us. All we have to do is get better each day."
Hammock said he and his staff worked on coming up with the best possible use of time for the split structure of practices. He said that the current practice structure is here for a while.
"We're going to stay in groups as long as possible," Hammock said. "We've come up with each position group needs. We figure we can get quality work done in small groups and minimize the risk of anything happening, like an outbreak. We still get the work we need to done. And we're falling training camp procedure."
As a receiver, Tucker said he liked the new structure.
"No linemen and all 7-on-7," Tucker said. "Personally I love it."