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Training groups small, expectations large for Illinois

Strength coach Lou Hernandez talks about how covid protocol has changed things for the Illini.

Illinois Athletics

For head strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez the task is simple: preparing his players for the upcoming season. But doing it both safely and effectively under the new procedures has been the biggest challenge.

“We are really navigating in uncharted waters right now,” Hernandez said on a Zoom call with media on Thursday.

Instead of training in larger groups, protocol insists of groups of just nine players and one coach to ensure that proper social distancing measurements are taken. Equipment is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between each use and each training group.

For a group that is usually close enough to drip sweat on one another, this change is presenting it’s own set of unique challenges.

“We’re normally right in it with them feeling their sweat,” Hernandez said. “It’s dripping on us. That’s how close we are to these guys on a normal day. To help encourage and push these guys to be the best they can be, it is challenging because your face is behind a mask and you’ve got to stand a few feet away.”

One of the challenges mentioned specifically by Hernandez was that of the spotter in workouts. Typically the sportier stands over the lifter, guiding the bar up and down and able to grab it if the lifter can’t lift it up. Now spotters are required to keep a watchful eye, but from a safe distance away.

Safe in terms of spreading the virus sure, but for the athlete? Hernandez is not too sure.

“Yes, we all understand social distancing, but so many things can go wrong in a weight room even when you’re doing things right,” Hernandez said. “We do want a spotter in position to help save a life versus having something that would be very tragic.”

Hernandez is usually relied on to motivate players, and has been shown in videos hugging or high-fiving a player after a nice rep or a max life — now, an elbow bump at best.

While most workouts have a high energy created by a large group of athletes, Hernandez pointed out that energy on the field is often created by fans, but he notes that fans that likely will not be in stadiums this fall.

“I want our guys to be driven internally. That’s what they have to do on the football field,” Hernandez said. “Yes, it helps when you’ve got fans. This year we may not have fans. We have no idea. I want those guys who are self-motivated and driven from within.”

While the training groups are smaller, the expectations from Hernandez are still big for an Illini team trying to make consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in a decade.

“If they don’t match their expectations or don’t match my expectations, then we’re going to do a few things to motivate them to make sure that they start to get their energy level up to an acceptable standard.

“Our guys know there’s a standard when they step in the room when they see that, ‘Get your mind right’ sign.”

The players have been coming back to campus in a staggered pace, but Hernandez had high praise for the players who are working out at this time.

“The guys that are coming in right now are doing a great job,” Hernandez said. “I think they’re just so excited to be back and have a sense of normalcy and be back in their support system and be back getting themselves prepared for what we’re all hoping is going to be a season coming our way. That excitement right now is driving this room and our players.

“These guys are ready to go.”