MURRAY — One small step towards normalcy returned to the Murray State football program on Monday when they took the field for their first practice since the coronavirus pandemic shut down athletics in March.

For a team with a new head coach, the Racers find themselves playing catch-up when it comes to learning a new scheme and getting prepped for the upcoming season.

What will help in the transition is the leadership of some of the returning players like Anthony Koclanakis and Malik Honeycutt. These two guys will be a huge help for new head coach Dean Hood as he continues forward into this new venture.

Monday’s practice lasted two hours and saw players practice in helmets but no pads. It was the first time in a long time that the players participated in any football-type movements.

“It felt really good,” Koclanakis said. “It felt a little weird, especially since we didn’t have any spring ball, so it was our first time in a helmet since the Southeast Missouri game (regular season finale). It was good to get some of the rust off. I felt like it was one of the better practices I’ve had here in Murray for the start of fall camp in my three years.”

Since the pandemic hit, the majority of communication between Hood, his staff and the players has been done via Zoom, so Monday provided a chance for players and coaches to interact in person.

“I thought it went really good,” Hood said. “When you talk about doing everything off of Zoom, and then having the guys go out there and be full tilt, I felt like it was really good.”

For Honeycutt, the layoff felt even longer due to his season-ending injury from last year. His return to football was highly anticipated and preceded by many days filled with hard work as he rehabilitated to get back on the field.

“I feel like I’m back where I’m supposed to be, on the field playing with my brothers,” Honeycutt said. “I’m glad I’m back…I actually think I’m faster than what I was before I tore it (meniscus).”

COVID-19 flipped the sports world upside down in March and has had an impact on the Racer football team. New schemes on offense and defense are expected, but the first hurdle Hood faces is getting to know his team.

“I was walking around today writing down jersey numbers and trying to figure out who was who,” Hood said. “We literally went from guys lifting weights and running around cones, to COVID-19, to now we are back together and trying to figure guys out. We signed a whole class of guys without really knowing what we had on our team. We watched the film, but we didn’t see all of the guys and we are getting here and putting in a new scheme and getting guys into different spots.”

Koclanakis is one of the players that is moving positions as he goes from an inside linebacker to an outside linebacker, however, he will still see some time on the inside under the new 3-4 scheme the team plans to run. The expectation is that the defense will be the strength of the team going into next season.

“We’ve got a lot of returners coming back and I think, defensively, we should have no drop off from last season,” Koclanakis said. “It’s definitely easier to learn a new defense than it is to learn a new offense, so I’m ready for that offense to start up.”

The Racers are going to build towards a regular season that is still up in the air, starting with what was considered one the best first practices in the last three years.

“Today was one of the best first days that I’ve been a part of,” Honeycutt said. “I don’t recall anyone on the offense running the wrong route or running the wrong play, so I honestly think it won’t take us long to get everything down pat and running smooth.”

“For the first day, actually going out there and doing something that looks like football, it was really good,” Hood said. 

The ramp up in activity will be slow and steady as they continue to get back into football action, with the safety of the players in mind.

“It’s going to be incremental and slow because we want to make sure that we get them to the starting gate,” Hood said.