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Tom Herman and Texas players adjust to new normal amidst coronavirus pandemic

The head coach and his Longhorns are trying to maintain perspective while still taking care of business.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing about this is normal.

Not Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman and not for his players, who are scattered around the country as they transition to online classes for the remainder of the semester and try to remain in shape with whatever workout equipment is available.

In some ways, however, Herman and his family are experiencing the coronavirus pandemic sheltered in place just like everyone else — watching the ludicrous Tiger King on Netflix, playing board games, and eating family dinners together, an unusual occurrence in normal times.

Even as Herman attempts to adjust to the “new normal,” he’s taking his social responsibility seriously as the face of the Longhorns football program, teaming with his wife to donate the equivalent of 40,000 meals to the Central Texas Food Bank and contributing $50,000 more to other local non-profits.

Herman’s own experiences growing up with a father who died in a homeless shelter and with a mother in an abusive relationship heavily influenced those donations and the organizations that received them.

“Our hearts, thoughts, prayers all go out to those affected by this virus,” Herman said last week. “I’m sure you’ve seen Michelle and I try to implore Longhorn Nation to do what they can — whether it’s resources, time, effort, whatever. Now more than ever, we need to help our community, help ourselves, and try to find a way to get through this.”

Senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger has joined in, too, taking a cue from Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and starting a GoFundMe COVID-19 Relief Fund.

The ambitious goal is to raise $1 million. As of Tuesday afternoon, Ehlinger has raised more than $80,000.

It’s a blessing,” Herman said when asked about having a leader like Ehlinger. “I don’t know any other way to put it. You know, I told the radio and print guys earlier — they asked me about and I said that I would have been surprised had he not started a GoFundMe page.”

Other aspects of conferences around the country adjusting to the new normal has been less of a blessing.

Herman and other Big 12 head coaches have expressed frustration in recent days about the conference’s moratorium on virtual meetings with players while on spring break and are still trying to understand the policies on what workout equipment programs can provide to players while they’re away from campus.

Overall, though, Herman made clear that he understands those are concerns less significant than getting through this pandemic as Texas enters its second week of conducting four hours per week of virtual meetings with players.

“We’ll figure the football part out,” Herman said. “We’ll figure all that stuff out. Let’s take care of our kids. From a nutrition standpoint, let’s make sure they’ve got a safe place to stay. And then let’s figure out how we keep them in shape. And let’s figure out how we’re going to get them the academic support that they need.”

The difficult balance is in maintaining the big-picture perspective while Herman and his staff continue to do their jobs in a way that they’ve never had to do them before, all while doing so with a bunch of new coaches. For Herman personally, it’s been a transition from being a young coach who knew how to use technology to “the old guy that can’t turn his phone on.”

So he’s called other coaches around the country, including Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, to share best practices to develop an on-the-fly blueprint to handle the new normal.

To deal with the campus shutdown and social distancing policies, the staff has been meeting via Zoom and utilizing voiceover cut-ups to continue to convey schemes to players — Herman compared the in-depth nature of those cut-ups to an on-demand coaching clinic. Zoom calls even have a whiteboard feature that coaches and players can use to draw up plays.

FaceTime calls between players and coaches help establish the personal connection that Herman wants through facial expressions and non-verbal communication.

For a staff that has two new coordinators and five other new assistants, the key installation work for those new schemes happened during winter conditioning thanks to recent NCAA rule changes that now allow football-specific drills and walk-throughs. So the base plays are already installed — consider that a key development compared to what might have happened in past years.

“We didn’t get to the specialty situations — third-down, short-yardage, goal-line, tight red-zone — stuff like that, but those are usually very, very, small packages to begin with,” Herman said. “So, the kids had it all. They’ve walked through it all. The only thing we’re missing is the actual physical reps. But the scheme part of it, especially with the meetings that our coaches will be having with these players, I don’t have any doubt the scheme and the knowledge of it will be there, but the body reps is what we’re missing right now.”

Following spring break and then an extra week away from classes, the strength and conditioning staff had to figure out how to adjust to players at home with varying levels of access to workout equipment. Herman initially envisioned a three-tiered approach — those with access to a weight room, those with access to some dumbbells or barbells, and those with nothing at all.

Led by head strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight, the staff contacted each player individually to personalize a workout program with what they had available.

Former walk-on linebacker Cort Jaquess, who is now on scholarship and started in the Alamo Bowl, went to Home Depot to create his own makeshift workout bench.

Herman also mentioned the desire to send tracking equipment to players, but following the release of the Big 12’s new policies about 10 days ago, the staff spent last week working to find out precisely what is and isn’t permissible. Players have received workout gear and some basic nutritional support like energy bars and supplements.

Nutrition might be the football-related area where Herman is most concerned about his players — in when the economy is functioning normally, it can be hard for those who come from lower income brackets to get the quality of food that they need to perform at the highest level athletically.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of providing for our student-athletes in the last 10-20 years,” Herman said. “You look at it and you say, well they make $2,000 a month, and they should be able to feed themselves. Yeah, I know, but when you’re living at home with your single mom who just got laid off from for her job as a server at Cracker Barrel, where do you think that $2,000 is going? That $2,000 is going to pay rent, car notes, cell phone bills, and all of that. I am concerned. To be quite honest, I wish we would have done more.”

The other challenge concerns the incoming signees in the 2020 recruiting class who didn’t enroll in January because current regulations mean that they can’t be part of meetings between coaches and current players.

Herman used the example of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich meeting with the quarterbacks on the roster — Ehlinger, Casey Thompson, Ben Ballard, and Hudson Card. Signee Ja’Quinden Jackson can’t be a part of that meeting. If Yurcich wants to hold a virtual meeting separately with Jackson, he can, those meetings just can’t happen simultaneously.

“I do get the amount of work that conferences and NCAA have done,” Herman said. “This one might have slipped through the cracks maybe a little bit. I told our compliance people to kind of look... It sounds a bit silly to me right that Mike can have that meeting with the quarterbacks and then hang up the phone have the exact same meeting with JJ. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Of course, for anyone who has followed the NCAA over the years with any closeness, doing things that don’t make any sense is just part of how the governing body for college sports operates.

And in the end, what matters the most is the safety of the players — as Herman said, the rest of it will work itself out. Eventually.