After months of uncertainty due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Weber State University football team is finally starting to see practice on the field consistently in preparation for the season this spring.
Many protocols and precautions — such as face shields on helmets, practicing in smaller groups, temperature checking and constant disinfecting of all equipment — are being enforced to ensure players are safe from a potential outbreak.
These protocols, restrictive yet necessary, aren’t keeping the team from setting their eyes on lofty goals.
After winning the Big Sky championship for the third year in a row and advancing to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs, many of the players are looking to take another step forward.
“When I first got here one of our big goals that we had was to win the Big Sky championship,” Jared Schiess, senior defensive lineman said. “Now that we’ve been able to improve as a team, as coaches and players, I feel like we’ve moved from winning the Big Sky championship to having the main focus be winning the national championship.”
In order to take this next step, it will once again require elite play from the defensive unit, which was the best in the Big Sky conference and one of the best in the FCS.
The Wildcats have a strong defense returning to the line this year. Four of the top five tacklers are back this year and nearly all of the secondary production will still be roaming the defensive backfield.
There are still some vacancies that need to be filled, especially when it comes to the pass rush. The departed duo of Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams accounted for 18 of the defense’s 46 sacks.
With a defense that thrives in pressuring the opposing quarterback and creating turnovers, the Wildcats will likely need defensive linemen such as George Tarlas, McKade Mitton and Schiess to step up in the pass rush if they want to see similar results this season.
But Schiess doesn’t expect the defense to skip a beat.
“We have a lot of experience on defense,” Schiess said. “Individually, there are playmakers on the field who make big impacts, make big plays, who can change games.”
An obvious obstacle that the defensive unit is experiencing as it prepares to take the next step is the unique, extended offseason, marred by the pandemic.
However, while not able to participate in organized team activities until recently and not knowing whether or not the season would even take place, the defense has been able to stay focused throughout all the uncertainty and maintain intensity at practice.
The team still doesn’t know when their first game is or who it’s going to be played against, but Schiess says everyone is taking it day by day and will be ready when the time comes.
Ultimately, Schiess says the unity among the team will propel them forward.
“The unity of a team like ours makes a huge difference. When you’ve played with the same players for three or four years, you build a really strong connection and I feel like it’s kind of like a family atmosphere. The unity of our team is going to give us the biggest advantage,” Schiess said.
That unity will be key as the Wildcat defense looks to take an already championship-caliber defense to new heights.