Leistikow: How Hawkeye football players, in isolation, are preparing for 2020 season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The e-mail from the University of Iowa was dated March 10, which seems like an eternity ago, doesn’t it? The subject: “Iowa Spring Football Information.”

The school’s pro day was announced for Monday, March 23. A Kirk Ferentz press conference was scheduled for 1 p.m. on Tuesday the 24th. And the Hawkeyes’ first of permitted 15 spring football practices would get going on Wednesday the 25th. Those things were all supposed to happen this week, but you know by now they didn't or aren't due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Ferentz himself delivered a video plea Monday night for others to practice social distancing and to "stay home, if possible."

Yes, it was just two short weeks ago that most of us still believed that there would be an NCAA basketball tournament and that we would never worry about our toilet-paper supply.

And now given the news that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed for at least a year, it certainly brings into focus whether football is the next big sports shoe to drop. The Tokyo Games were scheduled for late July/early August — the same time frame when college football fall camps typically begin.

That’s a sobering thought.

There are differences, yes. The Olympics brings people from nearly every world country into one crowded place for just a few weeks. College football is contained within America and is spread out over four to five months, with enough wiggle room to alter schedules and venues as needed to keep the oblong ball rolling.

So, the better we socially distance ourselves in the coming weeks and possibly months, the better chance we have at saving football's spot on the calendar — even if the season has to be shortened or pushed back.

It's fair to wonder whether we will comfortable entering a stadium on September Saturdays with 70,000 tightly packed people. We will eventually have a better feel for that answer as more data about the U.S. spread of this infectious coronavirus is gathered.

But, as of March 24, those in the football world and those who care about football can at least proceed with the premise that there will be football come fall.

And as I mentioned on our radio show last week, not every conversation these days has to revolve around the coronavirus.

It’s OK to talk about the prospects of the Hawkeyes in '20 instead of COVID-19.

From the folks I’ve interacted with (via a compliant, safe e-mail or texting distance), most of you would welcome the sports distraction.

So, in the coming days and weeks, you’ll still be seeing plenty of pertinent Hawkeye sports content from my keyboard and voice.

One such story is the one I’m about to tell: How Ferentz's Hawkeyes are still “preparing to be the best,” one of the team’s core mantras.

You remember the “Hawkeye Championship” that I wrote about last year, don’t you? That is the six-month competition that pits Hawkeye vs. Hawkeye. Weight-room achievements, academics, citizenship and daily habits are among the things scored. The competition, now in its 13th season under strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, is designed as a culture-building exercise that fosters accountability and toughens weak links. If one teammate fails, the entire team fails.

Well, the “Hawkeye Championship” framework is about to be put to its biggest test yet. With the Hansen Football Performance Center off limits to Hawkeye players "until further notice," I'm told, athletes are being issued grocery money instead of daily meals and receiving individually designed workout plans that they must complete on their own. (Athletes needing rehab or medical treatment can still make individual appointments to be seen.)

The at-home workouts include things like plyometric push-ups or box jumps or lifting with resistance bands; things that can be completed without the benefit of a 20,000-square-foot weight room. 

The last image of Hawkeye football we've had was the celebration after the 2019 Holiday Bowl win against USC.

There are six teams in the 2020 Hawkeye Championship, each with two captains — a sign of who is well-positioned for leadership roles now that 2019 captains Nate Stanley, Brady Ross, Geno Stone and Kristian Welch have departed. The tandems are:

  • Chauncey Golston (senior defensive end) and Cole Banwart (senior offensive lineman);
  • Nick Niemann (senior linebacker) and Brandon Smith (senior wide receiver);
  • Alaric Jackson (senior offensive lineman) and Austin Schulte (senior defensive lineman);
  • Mekhi Sargent (senior running back) and Jack Koerner (junior safety);
  • Keith Duncan (senior kicker) and Spencer Petras (sophomore quarterback);
  • And Dillon Doyle (sophomore linebacker) and Tyler Linderbaum (sophomore center).

Those 12 guys are tasked with keeping their teams accountable to their workouts and life choices. There won't be a strength coach to keep each player in line. Offseason culture and commitment will shape every major-college team more than ever, the 2020 Hawkeyes included.

The plan is for the "Hawkeye Championship" to continue through summer conditioning, like it always does, after which individuals and teams will be crowned.

Then, fingers crossed, fall camp will begin.

The news cycle is changing fast. This column may be obsolete by next week. But for now, Hawkeye players and the rest of us can keep preparing for football's return until we're told otherwise.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.