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WKU football players, coaches adapting mentally and physically during off-campus spring workouts

Last Thursday afternoon was supposed to be Western Kentucky University’s eighth on-field spring football practice at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Instead, the Hilltoppers are scattered apart throughout the region and the country, staying home and staying safe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have been for almost three weeks.

On March 12 – five days prior to what was supposed to be the first day of WKU’s spring football on the 17th – Conference USA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Frisco, Texas. Everything snowballed from there, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced C-USA officials to eventually cancel all spring sports competitions on March 16, followed by all in-person spring practices and activities on March 19.

Since then, Hilltopper football has been proactive about providing its student-athletes everything they might need to succeed in athletics and academics, as well as keeping up strength and conditioning and nutritional programs.

WKU head coach Tyson Helton is having to adjust this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (WKU photo)

WKU head coach Tyson Helton and a pair of WKU seniors – defensive back Trae Meadows and offensive guard Tyler Witt – recently participated in a Zoom conference call to discuss how they have been able to continue to get better at a time of uncertainty for the Hilltopper community, the country and the world.

“We’re in a really healthy place in a time when there’s a lot of uncertainty and all those kinds of things – we’re about in as good a place as we can be,” Helton said. “I thought the powers that be in charge – from [WKU President] Tim Caboni to [Director of Athletics] Todd Stewart – did such a great job seeing what was going to happen, and it gave us a lot of lead being able to prepare for what was coming.”

A couple days per week, each assistant coach holds meetings with their position group through Zoom – self-described as “the leader in modern enterprise video communications” – which allows the players and coaches to interact through audio and video channels. There are even screen-sharing capabilities, which is very helpful for coaches trying to keep things creative and engaging while showing film study.

“When you’re looking at people and talking to them online, it’s important to get feedback to make sure they completely understand the concepts – and our guys have been pretty interactive,” Helton said. “My hat’s off to our assistant coaches, they’re doing an unbelievable job. I’ve challenged them to be creative in what they do and they’ve been phenomenal.”

Meadows and Witt have enjoyed being able to connect with their teammates during Zoom meetings and through group text chats. There is a constant stream of communication, whether it’s football-related business or just keeping things light and messing around.

Still, the fact of the matter is that they’re physically away from their Hilltopper family when they normally would be around each other all the time, and that has been an adjustment in and of itself.

“I definitely do miss the locker room, being around the guys it’s like a family in there,” Meadows said. “Even though we work, we have fun too. We’re a team and we’re a brotherhood.”

A veteran group that will feature about 30 seniors on the 2020 roster and around 18 of the 25 starting positions (11 offense, 11 defense and three specialists), the Hilltoppers feel confident that the older players will be able to keep things in perspective during this unique situation.

WKU head coach Tyson Helton and a pair of seniors – defensive back Trae Meadows and offensive guard Tyler Witt – recently participated in a Zoom conference call to discuss how they have been able to continue to get better at a time of uncertainty. (WKU photo)

“Having players returning on both sides of the ball helps a lot,” Meadows said. “Even though we have to be refreshing our tools and things of that nature, we pretty much know what’s going on within our program and within our system and how we want things to go. We have that leadership to bring the younger guys up and let them know not to worry, it’s going to be alright.”

In addition to using the Zoom app to help keep the team mentally sharp, third-year director of strength and conditioning Jason Veltkamp and his staff have been vital to making sure the players have everything they need in order to stay physically prepared.

Using BridgeAthletic, the strength and conditioning staff has been able to upload specific workout plans for every Hilltopper. Then, the players are able to respond by uploading their results and keeping track of what they’ve done and for how long every day – they can even upload videos to make sure their form is correct and to get other feedback.

Of course, players are in many different situations right now – some have access to traditional gym equipment and some don’t – but the strength and conditioning staff has been able to solve all those issues on the fly and give personalized regimens.

Meanwhile, the nutritional staff has been able to ship supplements and shakes to each player, and the equipment staff has been able to ship any kind of workout apparel and gear they might need.

Helton knows all of this is key to keeping the Hilltoppers in the best possible physical shape – considering this situation – because that will be the most difficult adjustment whenever in-person practices resume.

“Football is a contact sport and you just can’t make up for that,” Helton said. “All the weightlifting and nutrition gives you a good foundation, but once we get back we have to get back into the football part of it and that will take some time.”

Witt brought up a few examples of how his fellow offensive linemen have been able to adjust. Like Cole Spencer, who was able to get a set of weights to set up in his basement in Louisville, and Woodford Lankford, who has set up a gym in his family barn outside of Lexington and has been doing “real country-boy stuff” like pulling tires.

Whether it has been pulling tires, lifting water jugs, curling bean cans or tossing rocks, WKU players know they have to keep motivated, working on whatever they can to stay engaged.

“You start wishing you had spring ball because you have different aspects you can improve upon by actually doing it and physically practicing,” he said. “But there’s really nothing we can do about that, so the mental side is even more important right now…You need to make sure you know what you’re doing and what your responsibilities are so you can be relied upon when the time comes.

“When we do come back, it’s going to really show who did the work and who didn’t. There are going to be people who aren’t going to put in the work that we are, so this is our time to kind of get that edge. We may not be in [traditional] spring ball, but this is the new path we have to take to take those next steps for next season.”

From Western Kentucky University

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