From the Sidelines
August in Nebraska is supposed to be a time of anticipation and excitement, not only for the start of a new school year but especially for the start of Husker football.
And while it’s also a time when fans count down the days (and hours) until the first kickoff, for former Aurora Husky Austin Allen, it was a time of isolation and trying to regain his strength from getting the coronavirus.
He, like several of his Big Red teammates, fell victim to the disease, but he’s now back at 100 percent, gearing up for the first game of the season on Oct. 24 at perennial powerhouse and Big Ten favorite Ohio State.
“For the first two days it kind of kicked my butt,” Austin told me last week via telephone. “It felt like a bad flu -- a high fever, muscle aches, headaches and body aches. I just felt down in the dumps. I couldn’t move. The third day I had a lot of congestion, and for the next three days my taste and smell went away. Then after that I felt 100 percent. It gave me a couple right hooks and then I was good.”
To say it’s been one of the strangest off-seasons in the history of college football would be an understatement. A last-second loss to Iowa on Nov. 29 in Lincoln ended the Huskers’ chances at a bowl game. A couple practices in the spring before everything was shut down due to COVID-19. A Big Ten scheduled released this summer, only to see it cancelled a few days later.
“It’s for sure like riding a roller coaster for months,” Austin pointed out. “It was hard. We were still doing OTAs (organized team activities) and doing our own thing, but it was hard to keep your hopes up. Finally, we got a schedule and we’re set.”
Austin said rules are very strict for the players in order to limit their chances of getting the virus, but that still hasn’t stopped things from happening.
“The parameters they set for us are almost unattainable. If we had a game the last three weeks, we would not have been able to play based on how many guys we had test positive. It’s crazy. We’re going to start buttoning it up and eventually maybe move everybody to a hotel. It’s what you have to do if you want to play football.”
Austin told me Husker players were living day to day this past spring and summer, getting updated schedules each night on their phones just because everything was changing so dramatically. And it still is.
“Just today they are changing how they test us (for COVID) and when they do it.”
Adjust and move on.
So with the Buckeyes and then Wisconsin on the horizon, Austin said he feels confident that the team will be ready to roll.
“I know the tight end room feels comfortable and we’re in good enough shape where we could play this Saturday,” he pointed out. “Most of the tight ends have tested positive and we’ve been through that all. It’s tough. Coming back from it you feel exhausted and you are super out of shape because you can’t do anything for 20 days. I seriously lost track of days sitting in my room, but practices will get you back into shape fast.”
He also said that last Wednesday’s practice was the first time the team had been in pads (half pads) since that Iowa game, and because of that it was one of the most physically-demanding practices he’s ever had.
“It started off slow and it was weird getting back in the flow of actually hitting each other, but toward the end there were bodies flying around and it was kind of a bad deal.”
Austin, now up to 255 pounds after weighing in at 259 just two weeks ago, has become the best blocking tight end on the team. Husker coaches have said as much, and it’s obvious watching the tape.
“It (blocking) is something that the old offensive coordinator used to say,” Austin noted. “’No block, no rock.’ That’s my mentality. I’ve worked on it and have taken pride in it.”
The Aurora native’s modest stats since he’s been in Lincoln consist of 12 total catches, including seven a year ago for 83 yards, that despite the fact that he started five games and played in every single contest.
But those numbers might go up quite a bit this season. New offensive coordinator Matt Lubick has a reputation for using his tight ends a lot in the passing game.
Lubick, who coached with Frost at Oregon from 2013 to 2015, was out of the profession a year ago and previously coached at Washington for the Huskies in 2017 and 2018.
“He loves big-bodied guys,” Austin mentioned, “and so far he’s put in a lot of concepts, which is awesome from a tight end standpoint. The last couple years we’ve had promising things for the tight ends but we just never ran them (in games). I just know with Lubick he’s going to get it done, where we can go make plays.
“Even Travis Vokalek (transfer from Rutgers) is doing great things. He’s a heck of a blocker. I’m not sure how it’s going to look but it’s probably going to be a three-man rotation, kind of the way it was my first year here. With two tight ends it’s a long game, and I’m still going to be on special teams even though they might dial me back just a little, to give me a break.”
Another thing that might help open things up more for the tight ends is a stronger receiving corp. Recruits Omar Manning, Zavier Betts and Alante Brown potentially will remake that position for the coaches, even if all are newcomers.
“We for sure have a lot of weapons on the outside of us,” Austin said about the wide receiver positions. “That will back defenses up and spread them out and will allow us to get things done in the run game as well. I think at this point, they just need an understanding of the offense, to get the concepts down. It’s hard to have an offense firing when one guy doesn’t know his job, but that will come in the next month.”
When the Big Ten season was officially cancelled by Commissioner Kevin Warren, we all remember Frost pleading his case for the Huskers to be able to still play football, any football, this fall.
And we all remember the shots he took nationally from Desmond Howard, Michael Wilbon, and Pat Forde.
Words will never hurt us.
“That shows a lot about the man he is,” Austin said, “because he cares about his players and he wants us to play. It’s what we’re here to do. A lot of these guys say, ‘We didn’t come here to play school.’
“It means a lot because he took some bullets to get us to play. In my mind I know I wanted to play. And those 50 or so staff members who got furloughed. Any way this university can bring money back to those people, because obviously they’ll go through some tough times. I want to play for those families.”
Austin also said that because he has already had the virus, medical personnel are telling him his antibodies against the disease will be up in 90 days, which means in early November he’ll have to be extra careful once again.
And without any football until lately, he said he felt more like a regular student.
“They even gave us the option to stay at home (virtual classes). It was kind of nice for a bit. I felt like an actual student. Go to class. Go home. Do my homework.”
Yes, any tiny bit of normalcy in this crazy time of uncertainty is a good thing.
Meanwhile, there are only 16 days and 12 hours left until the Huskers kick off against the Buckeyes.
And 46 seconds.
DAVE BRADLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.