Football resumes full-contact practices, looks ahead to fall season
With COVID-19 restrictions on athletics easing during the spring, the football team has been able to practice as a full team for the first time in more than a year.
The football team returned to practice on Memorial Field this spring.
This spring, fewer COVID-19 restrictions and warmer weather have allowed the Dartmouth football team to enjoy its most frequent regular practice schedule since the beginning of the pandemic. Although many restrictions remain — including the continued requirement of masks underneath players’ helmets — low case counts and high vaccination rates brought about fully-padded practices for the first time in over a year.
According to head coach Buddy Teevens ’79, fall and winter practices consisted largely of position-specific exercises and drills. The team was split into smaller training pods to limit the potential for disease spread. Beginning in the spring term, however, the entire team has been able to practice together on Memorial Field. This has allowed them to run plays, work together as an offense or defense, and, in many cases, get to know freshman athletes outside of their position groups.
The lifting of social distancing requirements has also improved practice capabilities. Instead of individual drills, players are able to be in direct physical contact with one another, essential for their preparation for fall competition.
“The biggest thing was the ability to actually engage another player — a quarterback handing the ball off to a running back or an offensive lineman pass protecting against a defensive lineman — because we couldn't do that in the fall,” Teevens said. “So with that type of proximity... there was kind of an, ‘Okay, this is a little bit more like real football.’”
Teevens said that some facilities remain restricted. Only five players are allowed in the locker room at the same time, and indoor meeting rooms have remained closed to position groups for film study. Additionally, the team has had to share scheduled access to the weight floor at the Floren Varsity House with other practicing sports. The team has tried to adapt to these challenges with Zoom meetings and outdoor workouts.
For the coaches, a major obstacle to overcome this year has been forging team unity, Teevens noted. With many players taking classes remotely, integrating the Class of 2024 within team dynamics and structure has required persistent effort. Older players have had to consciously integrate younger athletes into team culture.
“I would say one thing [the pandemic] definitely hurt us in is the camaraderie just because meeting over Zoom and being there in person, it's definitely a big difference,” linebacker Jalen Mackie ’22 said. “So one thing that our coaches have harped on, especially to the older players, is just making sure that we're reaching out to the younger guys and trying to build relationships with them.”
Some of the team’s starters are currently off campus, creating opportunities for athletes further down the depth chart. However, the lack of a consistent cast of players between terms has made assessing progress difficult.
“The tough thing is some of these guys have not been on campus since 2019,” Teevens said. The one concern that I have is just the culture of the team; it's a close group, they work well together, but we’ve got guys that don't even know who the other guy is.”
For the players who have been on campus, the ability to return to the game after a year-long hiatus has been exciting but challenging. Keeping up the physical acumen required for football was possible throughout the pandemic due to at-home workouts, but Mackey emphasized that the finer movements required of in-game situations is hard to replicate without scrimmage or positional drills.
“It was definitely an adjustment, especially in terms of guys getting back into the rhythm of the game or getting that muscle memory back,” Mackie said. “It took a couple practices for guys just to get their bodies to adjust. I'm not gonna say it was easy, because it wasn't … and we know football, we love it, we love everything about it.”
Last weekend’s Green and White game gave the team an opportunity to run plays in a refereed environment for the first time since the 2019 season. Players rotated throughout the offense and defense, getting a fully padded tackle football experience. According to Teevens, the game helped the team get back into sync and was an exciting look at what fall competition could bring.
For starting quarterback Derek Kyler ’21, who will be playing during his fifth year at Dartmouth as a result of the Ivy League’s decision to expand eligibility, the opportunity to return to the Big Green was an easy decision to make. Kyler said he would not allow his last season with the team to be one marred by pandemic restrictions.
“I love Dartmouth, I love Coach T and the coaching staff, the QB coach, it was really a no-brainer to me,” Kyler said. “I wasn't gonna go out like that and just have that be my last football game and I didn't even know it at the time … I was ready to come back and work with the guys … and hopefully get another ring.”
The players and coaching staff expect the fall season to be free of COVID-19 restrictions. With nearly the entire team vaccinated, Teevens expects that away games and fan attendance to resume. He also believes that, even after more than a year away from the field, his team will be more than ready to compete. He compared the team’s expected fall return to an injured player coming back to the field.
“I tell guys, look, sometimes a guy has a shoulder surgery or knee repair, and they're out for an extended period, ‘Okay, ... those injured guys come back, and they play and are productive,” Teevens said. “[Coming back from COVID] is a different environment, but it's not going to change the way we plan on Saturday.”