Darrius G. Smith shows up to work every day preparing as if he will lead the Fort Lewis College football team onto Nottingham Field in Greeley to face Division I Northern Colorado on Sept. 5. The problem is, he still doesn’t know what time kickoff will be, or if the game will even happen.
“To my knowledge, it’s still a go. We haven’t heard anything that it’s not happening,” Smith said. “The funny thing is, there’s still not a time for the game yet. So, I don’t know what that means. With everything happening with COVID-19, nothing is etched in stone. I don’t like saying ‘I don’t know,’ but COVID has basically had the world and college athletics saying, ‘I don’t know.’”
Answers will come for Smith and the Skyhawks on July 17 after the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Presidents Council meets to discuss the playing of fall sports in 2020. Football could be moved to the spring, but there is still a chance the season begins as regularly scheduled with fall practice allowed to open Aug. 10.
“I want to play football. I want to coach football,” Smith said. “When you’re a ball coach, you want to coach ball. ... I’m very optimistic you can play football right now. At the same time, I want whatever decision is made to be made for the health, safety and welfare of all student-athletes. Players love to play the game. Coaches love to coach the game. But we aren’t ready to put anyone’s life in front of this game.”
Smith was hired by FLC on Feb. 14, making him the team’s 14th head coach in program history and the fifth since 2015. He was signed to a three-year deal to help bring stability to the Skyhawks.
He had only two spring practices in March before the new coronavirus pandemic canceled spring sports and practices. That left Smith unable to establish the foundation of his team, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Still, he set out recruiting with a focus on the offensive line. Smith and his staff got it done, signing the top-two targets on their recruiting board in Chase LaBlanc out of West LA College in California and Jason Sitala out of Cerritos College in California.
“Not having the ability to bring guys to campus and actually see the school hampered things a bit,” Smith said. “We recruited virtually and over the phone when we could, and we got the No. 1 and No. 2 guys on our board. That’s unheard of.
“The type of guys I was going after, it made recruiting difficult. I’m not going after guys that are great Division II players. I adhere to the philosophy that you can’t win a lower-level championship with lower-level players. We were in major competition recruiting high-level guys against FCS schools. That’s the approach I have, and it will only get better as the years go. Everything gets better with winning, but I already showed the aggressiveness I want to recruit with. That showing up and paying dividends early will only help later when we finish up the couple of spots we have.”
At the end of June, the Skyhawks signed quarterback Ar’Mon Hickson out of Georgia. Hickson previously played at Reedley College, where he passed for 1,546 yards, 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions while he completed 66.5% of his passes on a team that went 10-1 last season. He also rushed for five touchdowns.
Hickson will compete for the starting QB job at FLC with four other players, including two-time Week 1 starter Jake Lowry, who has been injured early in each of the last two seasons and was forced to miss 12 games. Also on the roster are Connor Apodaca, a Northern Colorado transfer who had to sit out last season; Erik Ornduff, who played in nine games last year and threw for 1,169 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions; and Armando Herrera, a mid-year transfer from Texas A&M Commerce who previously passed for 60 touchdowns and 5,431 yards in two years at San Bernardino Valley College.
When Smith replaced former head coach Brandon Crosby, mid-year transfer Austin Nuessle left the Skyhawks.
While FLC has lots of QBs on the depth chart, Smith has never seen any of them throw a pass in practice.
“I cannot wait to get on the field. I can’t do another Zoom meeting,” Smith said. “All of it looks good on paper, and the young men say they understand things, but without having spring ball and being able to implement a lot of the things I want to do offensively, there are still a lot of questions unanswered. I got a quarterback battle between very capable guys returning and a couple transfer guys. I couldn’t tell you who the front runner is. I need a chance to put answers to questions.”
One answer already comes in the form of the FLC defense. Longtime coach Ed Rifilato returned as defensive coordinator when Smith was hired. Rifilato was the defensive coordinator for FLC last year when the Skyhawks ranked third in the RMAC in scoring, total and rushing defense.
“The glass is half full on a positive side having Rifilato back,” said FLC athletic director Brandon Leimbach. “That makes me confident since the guys know Ed’s system and Ed knows them. I think the defense should pick up where we left off.”
Leimbach said the plan is still for full fall practice to begin Aug. 10 with return to play initiatives. Players have started to come in since July 6 to begin strength and conditioning work in small groups. Smith has been glad to have coaches and some players on campus working together toward the season.
Still, a lot can change in the next week if the RMAC and Division II make anticipated announcements regarding the fall season.
“Candidly speaking, I want to play football,” Smith said. “The biggest thing I tell the guys is that we always take everything at face value. We’re going to live in the moment. Right now, that moment is working out, lifting, getting stronger, learning some Xs and Os. When the moment changes, we will be ready for change. But we will live in the moment. Nobody in my office or the players can control the future.”