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Packers scouting staff coping with fallout of crumbling college football season

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
The Big Ten logo is displayed on the field at Iowa before a 2019 game.

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst had his modest college football playing experience cut short because of a shoulder injury, so he has felt the disappointment many NCAA seniors are dealing with today.

The college football season is on the brink of being postponed and for some players there is no guarantee their schools will try to make up the season in the spring. It means that COVID-19 will have turned another way of life upside down.

“You know, (I’m) really disappointed for those kids,” Gutekunst said in a Zoom call with reporters Monday. “The ability to play the game, that’s a tough thing because some of these guys may never ever get a chance to play football again.

“It’s a little different than some other sports. There’s no pick-up games in football.”

Gutekunst’s misfortune at UW-La Crosse resulted in an early start on his post-graduate career path, which 24 years later has him dealing with the uncertainty COVID-19 has slung upon both the NFL and college ranks.

Normally, Gutekunst and his scouting staff would be preparing for a season on the road, visiting college campuses to watch practices and collect information on draft prospects. But the visits had been scuttled well before various conferences started announcing the cancellation of their fall seasons because of COVID-19.

“The first and foremost thing with our road scouts is we want to keep them safe,” Gutekunst said.

The scouts were prepared to do their evaluations off practice and game tape while collecting personal information through phone calls with coaches, administrators and other school personnel. As long as there was a college season, they would be working.

Then the Power 5 conference commissioners met Sunday and Monday to discuss how to proceed this fall and multiple reports have indicated they are prepared to postpone the season until next spring.

Other conferences, such as the Mid-American, have canceled their fall sports seasons and may not make them up.

For those players who have a legitimate chance of being drafted by the NFL, playing in the spring won’t be viable because they won’t want to take the injury risk and they’ll want to be far along in their training for the draft.

Gutekunst said he had made contingency plans knowing that anything was possible this fall and said he would consider various options for how to handle college scouting.

“As far as our scouting staff goes I think we’re kind of prepared on a number of different fronts to attack this,” he said. “But I think we have to be very flexible, too, because things will change and we’re going to prepare.

“There’s going to be a draft, we’re going to have to acquire players, so we’re just going to have to do it a few different ways.”

Complicating matters is when exactly the college season might take place in the spring, whether the NFL makes it through a complete season and if the NFL draft is held at its normal time.

If the college season runs February through April, for instance, players who have a shot at the NFL probably aren’t going to take part. The NFL normally holds its scouting combine in late February and college pro days start shortly thereafter.

The 2021 draft is scheduled for April 29-May 1.

Draft prospects train hard for the combine because their testing numbers can have a big impact on where they are drafted. It means a lot of seniors and juniors will opt out of playing the college season so they can focus on training for the draft.

If the NFL gets delayed and must finish its season in the spring and push its draft back, then it’s possible the dates will align so that college players can take part in the season and still have time to train for the draft. But so much of that is up in the air that scouting staffs will need to be able to cut on a dime to account for some of the decisions still to be made.

“Obviously, if certain conferences and levels don’t play, we’re going to have to do a lot of our evaluations off the tape from 2019,” Gutekunst said.

Asked if he could see the NFL holding a December scouting combine that would bring together all the college players who have opted out of this season, Gutekunst didn’t rule it out.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we got down to that December area where you might see something like that, different kind of combines or workouts we’ll be able to attend,” he said. “The work those guys are going to have to do from an evaluation aspect, and also the background information and all the character information we rely on those guys so much for, all that is still going to be required.

“So, they’re going to have their work cut out for them. They’re just going to have to do it in some different ways. But it’s all still going to have to be done before we get to the time next year when the draft is.”