MORRISON – Eighteen players in solid, fire-engine red helmets stood in a line waiting for their coach to signal the start of yet another sprint, followed by pushups and core work.
Morrison coach Cory Bielema gave the orders and the red helmets, filled with tired athletes, bobbed along, racing each other to an imaginary line and back again at the end of Tuesday's football practice.
"Coach B already made a statement this year about our conditioning," Mustangs tight end Austin Keller said. "We need to be at another level than before. We've been working so hard."
With 18 players on the varsity roster, the Mustangs don't have enough bodies for a full 11-on-11 scrimmage. The number also means that some players will have to play, and learn, multiple positions in order to complete the team. Bielema expects some growing pains this year as players will have to be able to play extended minutes, some at unfamiliar spots.
The head coach has stressed to players over the summer months that entering the first week of practice in top shape is important, if they want to be competitive this season as a team with limited numbers.
"As a tight end, I have to be able to know about blocking packages and routes," Keller said. "We also have about two or three [quarterbacks], and they are practicing as running backs as well as quarterbacks.
"With the way Coach is doing our offense this year, it allows for guys to pick up and learn positions quickly."
Added Bielema: "Some backs are learning new positions on the line, and some linemen are learning to be backs. It's a process that we've all adapted to."
Bielema has also come up with ways to have effective practices without the capabilities of praticing with a full team. One way has been the use of a popular drill that he learned several years ago.
The dull hollow thump of hands smacking plastic could be heard over the echoing noise coming from the Whiteside County Fair just beyond the trees at the high school's football practice field.
The Mustangs were running offensive drills against overturned gray garbage cans.
"It kind of represents where we feel the defensive line will set up," Bielema said. "It helps to get some more reps against positioned objects, especially in the situation where we are just running around in helmets."
Bielema picked up the drill when he was coaching at the 2010 Illinois Shrine Game. Geneseo coach Larry Johnsen brought in buckets for a few of the practices, and Bielema liked the idea enough to adopt his own version of the drill and started to use it in his own practices.
On Tuesday, Bielema called out plays from a white sheet of paper, and the offensive line would crash into the cans, pick them up and move them out of the way to create a would-be hole for the ball carrier. On passing plays, the line would create a pocket by manipulating the overturned cans.
The team lined up against a 4-3 front, which represented four linemen and three linebackers, and Bielema made sure to address hand placement among other intricacies.
"It definitely helps a lot," said Mason Sitzmore, a senior quarterback. "It gives the linemen a chance to look at what they're dealing with, and it helps to see some moving pieces really early on in practices."
The cans mimic opposing defenses, and help players visualize what they will face in the coming weeks. Sitzmore kept the ball a few times and took advantage of the open holes created by the line. The cans, he said, help ingrain plays into memory much faster when you see the plays work.
The Mustangs open their season at Princeton Aug. 29, and the Tigers' base defense features a 4-3 front, something Morrison is already scheming for.
Keller and Sitzmore both said that excitement is always high in practices, but they also know both sides of the tale. The two were on the sidelines as freshmen when the Mustangs won the state title in 2011 after a 13-1 season. The following year, the Mustangs went 6-4 before finishing with a 2-7 record a season ago, and the two are trying to lead a bounce-back season.
"Right now, it's easy to get excited at points in practice," said Bielema, who is entering his seventh year as head coach. "They're knocking over the garbage cans, which is nice, but we're going to get to the point soon where those garbage cans will fight back.
"At that point, we can really start evaluating."
Did you know?
The Mustangs, who went 2-7 last season, are hoping to get back to the postseason after missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2003 season.
It was also the first time missing the playoffs during coach Cory Bielema's six seasons. Bielema coached Morrison to two state titles in 2009 and 2011.