Tom Allen said repeatedly during the course of the 2020 season that of the players on his roster, the ones who were having the toughest time with pandemic life were his linemen on both sides of the ball.
Carrying close to or above 300 pounds on one’s body and maintaining good conditioning means walking a series of fine lines when it comes to food consumption, nutrition and exercise. When campus cleared out last spring due to the onset of the pandemic, spring practice ended and players couldn’t have direct, in-person contact with strength and conditioning coaches and nutritionists for a while, the Indiana players who showed the most signs of struggle with keeping in shape were the largest ones.
“Those big bodied guys, if they’re left to themselves to do whatever they do naturally, those guys don’t usually run,” Allen said during his Zoom press conference Wednesday. “When you’re carrying all that weight on you as a big guy, going out and doing all that running, they’re glad to go lift and do as much lifting as you want them to, but that running is something that if you’re not with them, it’s hard for them to want to go do that on their own. There’s no question we were worried about that group during the pandemic. When they came back, it was hard for them to get them back in good shape where they needed to be.”
Junior offensive tackle Caleb Jones, a Lawrence North graduate, gave some insight into what that battle was like for linemen in a press conference Tuesday. He’s a very large man to start with, listed on Indiana’s roster at 6-foot-8, 362 pounds. But last season he was even larger. He said he played most of the year around 395.
“The COVID offseason was one of the toughest offseasons I’ve ever had as a player,” Jones said. “Not having the structure that you’re used to, that I’ve had my entire life during offseasons that I’ve had, my offseasons here. It threw everybody off. It threw me off as well, just trying to make sure I was getting the work done, it was a really tough offseason.”
Jones admitted his discipline level, especially when it came to food, wasn’t quite where it needed to be, and that was one of the biggest adjustments he had to make.
“It’s definitely taken a level of discipline that I’m now getting used to, but last year I wasn’t,” Jones said. “It’s definitely about holding yourself accountable and knowing that your goals aren’t going to change just because the world around you did.”
The Hoosiers gritted it out as best they could last season, and the rest of the nation’s college linemen were dealing with the same issue. They started their season late with the Big Ten initially cancelling its season before deciding to play but since camp began last season they’ve been able to maintain some level of routine all the way through spring practice, which ends this Saturday. The Hoosiers didn’t even have the usual spring break that splits spring practice and usually pushes the end back to the end of April.
Because of that, Allen sees a huge difference in the linemen between now and when they arrived back on campus late last summer. Jones said he’s down to 355 pounds himself with a target weight of somewhere between 340 and 350, something that certainly seems achievable by early September.
Jones is the most dramatic case because he’s the biggest player on the team — and, Allen said, one of the largest humans he’s ever seen. No one else on the roster is listed above 340 pounds. However, Allen has noticed a positive difference across the board because of the simple fact that the Hoosiers have spring practice this season after not having it last year.
“When you think of last year, right now, at this point a year ago we were not even together and this was just beginning,” Allen said. “… I knew how excited I was to get our kids in with out strength staff, to be able to get them in with them on consecutive days and to the point where they’re watching their diets and getting squared away habitually, sleeping habits, eating habits, all of the things you need to take care of yourself so you have the high-level energy and preparation to be able to perform at a high level.”
The Hoosiers, like all college athletes and humans in general, are looking forward to the end of abnormalcy and to be able to train completely normally as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic. They were better off this spring than they were a year ago when they didn’t have one, but they still had to adhere to protocols and participate in a spring that didn’t have a spring break in the middle to space out the experience. It’s been a grind, and they’re hopeful to return to a fall that is closer to what they’re used to.
“Our guys are sick of it,” Allen said. “They’re sick of having to wear masks all the time. They’re sick of having to stay apart and not be able to go do things they want to be able to do. There’s that balance of, don’t grow weary of doing that because we have to stay the course. We can’t let up here at the end. We know it’s still out there, it’s still real, it’s still an issue. We’re not out of it yet. But we do feel like the end is close. You can see the finish line even though we don’t know exactly where it is yet, we know we’re closer to it. I do feel like that energizes guys.”
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