Football teams prep for dead period

Former University of Tennessee wide receiver Josh Smith, left, gives a tip to Lenoir City High School senior receiver Sebastian Borthwick during a Thursday practice session.

After reporting to practice for less than a month, all three high school football teams in Loudon County are taking two more weeks off.

A series of lengthy discussions were held over the last two months of whether or not to cancel the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s mandatory dead period this summer due to COVID-19.

TSSAA Board of Control voted June 4 to keep the dead period despite an outcry from high school coaches.

“The eastern part of the state was unanimous in that we felt like we wanted to move forward and not have a dead period, but whatever — I was disappointed by that,” Jeff Harig, LHS head football coach, said. “I just didn’t think it was fair to the kids, you know? They had already had up to 10 weeks off and to ask them to come back for three weeks and try to get them in the flow of things and then to tell them to take another two weeks off, to me, it wasn’t fair.”

Greg Ryan, Greenback head football coach, does not agree with the dead period but believes TSSAA made the right decision of keeping it in place and not breaking precedence.

“I’m not a fan of the dead period any year, but this year I don’t think anything else could’ve been done about it,” he said. “In my opinion, it was kind of a ridiculous vote when you start at the first of the year and ask families, ‘Hey, if all possible we’d love for you to take your vacations the last week of June or the first week of July.’ Obviously, this COVID-19 thing hits and, from my standpoint, I don’t think people really went on vacations. I felt like the dead period was still necessary as scheduled this year.”

All three teams put in countless hours of work this month to accelerate the process of getting back in the weight room and on the practice field after missing spring training.

The Lenoir City High School Panthers split into small groups four days a week to lift and work on conditioning.

“It makes for long days, but in a lot of ways it’s kind of nice, too, because the kids are getting more individualized attention,” Jeff Cortez, LCHS head football coach, said. “The tempo’s been great, the kids can’t go and hide to take a set off, so the volume’s been phenomenal. They’re in a group of eight with two coaches and working the full range of motion, getting a great learning experience. It’s nothing crazy. We’ve had to progress that as well.”

Several LCHS receivers worked with former University of Tennessee wideout Josh Smith last week. Cortez hopes Smith, in conjunction with D1 Training, will be able to train more of his athletes this summer.

“We’re going into the dead period, so it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, this is Josh and these are some of the benefits he can provide you guys’,” Cortez said. “It went great. Josh has got a great playing experience, so our guys can only learn from that experience. They can take what we’ve been working on the last four weeks and use his knowledge to make you a better well-rounded athlete.”

Teams are still unable to practice in a normal setting, but coaches are hopeful to advance to phase 3 on July 6. Phase 3 will allow 50 people indoors and outdoors.

“We didn’t do 11-on-11 because as I understood it, we couldn’t be closer than 6 feet apart, so we had a lot of things where we really worked hard on knowing where to go,” Harig said. “The pad level, the contact and all that stuff that you normally do with a blocking bag or someone holding a blocking bag, we haven’t been able to do. We really progressed as a perimeter, which means your running backs and receivers, we progressed really well on our assignments, as far as routes go and stuff like that.”

The Cherokees were able to work on passing and catching drills late last week.

“Most of my team is freshmen and sophomores and lot of new faces, so at least we got to know some of those kids,” Ryan said. “The last week, we got out and got to throw and catch and do some things with the football. They should all be excited to come back once the dead period is over.”

Coaches look forward to ramping up practice once the dead period ends.

“I hope we enter into phase 3, and phase 3 will allow us to start hitting bags and allow us to reduce the 6-foot social distance guidelines,” Harig said. “That will allow us to make it look a little more like football and will allow us to put the whole team together. If we’re still in phase 2, we’re going to be in that same boat of separation. I’m looking forward to at least putting 11 guys versus 11 guys.”