On paper, the NCAA-approved college football practice plan that begins today looks normal: up to eight hours each week for weight training, conditioning and film review. Teams can spend one hour per day for meetings and one hour each day for a walk-through, which can include an actual football.
Just disinfect it when you’re done.
And at North Carolina, coach Mack Brown will be wearing a face shield and holding a stick to make sure everyone — himself, included — stays socially distanced.
“We’re getting a stick for our coaches,” Brown said this week. “It’s a 6-foot stick and we’re going to have to stand that far apart during practice. We’re having to learn to practice differently and being led by the medical staffs. That’s what we’ll be learning this weekend with the walk-through, is how do we practice to make sure we stay safe?”
College football is slowly creeping back across the country for what has been described as a two-week “enhanced summer access period,” similar to the NFL’s organized team activities periods. The sport must learn to walk before it can run headfirst into a season amid the coronavirus pandemic. The next 14 days are an acclimation period and precursor to the typical summer “camp” experience — but it’s also a critical window during which FBS conference commissioners and athletic directors will be watching to help guide their decisions about whether to proceed, and if so, when.
Meanwhile, the coaches — who have given their athletic directors input but have almost zero influence when it comes to the decision-making process — are trying to muddle their way through the closest thing resembling actual football since spring sports came to a screeching halt.
“For a first-year program, when you take off in fall camp, you want the runway clear of obstruction,” Baylor coach Dave Aranda said. “That’s what the OTAs are, removing all boulders and all the fallen trees.”
Baylor will try to clear the figurative boulders and trees, while keeping plenty of actual cones on the field. Aranda joked that the socially distanced setup, monitored by team managers and staff members, will resemble a line at an amusement park. The Bears’ coaches, along with some other programs such as Notre Dame and Stanford, will use electronic whistles, activated by pushing a button, so they won’t have to remove their masks during the sessions.
“Whistles that don’t cause, uh, the key word is spittle,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
The unusual conditions won’t diminish the significance of the sessions for Baylor, which didn’t log any spring practices under Aranda’s staff before the virus shutdown. Aranda’s goal is twofold: to introduce the tempo, operation, expectations and coaching style for how practices will be run, even without going full speed, and to go through situational work for the potential season. Baylor will devote each day to a situation, like third-and-medium, red zone, two-minute and four-minute.
“You don’t really know your guys all that well in terms of on the grass,” Aranda said. “We’ve focused so much more on the person as opposed to the player with all of the COVID-19 anxieties, uncertainty, [the] George Floyd [killing], emotions that are running high, deep-seated frustration, anger, helplessness, so much more time. Getting to know your players is a different thing. But when we get into short-yardage situations, we’re going to have to have an identity. When we get to third-and-long, we’ve got to have an identity.”
Being able to use an actual ball in team activities will help. Coaches say it enhances timing for both offenses and defenses. There’s also a more realistic feel, even for drills at half-speed, when the football is being snapped.
“On defense, you’re playing an align, assign game if not for a ball,” Aranda said. “Now you’re playing how to defend the man in the one-on-one part. That’s a big deal.”
At Notre Dame, the coaches will be wearing a fitted, clear, plastic face mask so the players will be able to see their facial expressions — equipment first purchased by the university for teaching in an environment where lip-reading is essential — and the coordinators and coach Brian Kelly will wear microphones to help cast their voices.
While the Irish will have their position meetings in person instead of virtually, there have been several changes to help follow the CDC guidelines. The offensive linemen will have to use the full team meeting room instead of their usual, smaller space, and a room that was once divided with a partition for the defensive line and linebackers is now wide open for an entire position group. What was once a recruiting lounge is now a defensive back meeting room.
One thing that won’t change in South Bend when preseason camp starts in August and the Irish tackle for the first time since December? Fundamentals.
“We have to practice football,” Kelly said. “We’re going to be smart, and we’re going to do the things necessary as coaches, but the players have to be able to be prepared to play the game when the game is ready to be played. When I look at the schedule that I put together, there are some tweaks relative to how we’re teaching, but when it comes to the fundamentals of the game, they will be taught in the same fashion that I’ve taught them for 30 years.”
It’s all in preparation for the season opener against Navy in Annapolis, Maryland, where coach Ken Niumatalolo wondered about his players hitting the bags during preseason camp.
“When guys hold bags, do you do more things where you’re blocking the bag, and the guy’s behind the bag, and you have to make sure your face is completely behind the bag, so no droplets get on him?” he said. “There’s so many things like that.”
Niumatalolo said the summer practice routine is fairly similar across the country: from meetings to walk-throughs, then warm-ups and individual work, to some group work and then the entire team — and it’s the latter part he’s going to try to somehow avoid next month as much as possible.
“This is the hard part: How much team work do you do, and how much stuff do you do together?” he said. “Which is bizarre. I guess it can be just like a play or something, and you’re practicing a play, and everybody is doing their own number somewhere else, and you never really actually get to do it together. You don’t even have a dress rehearsal. The first time you have your play is opening night and you’ve never really sang together. I guess that’s kind of how I envision it so we’re safe, but it’s still bizarre to me. I don’t see how you can do that. I’m thinking that’s the only way to try and keep our guys safe — practicing drills spread out, continuing to meet virtually, minimize all of the team work, a lot of individual stuff.”
Stanford has taken a measured approach since the virus’ impact and will only kick off the summer access period “when it’s appropriate,” Shaw said Thursday. But the anticipation of being together on the field is high for a team that, like most, has spent months in virtual meetings and film reviews.
“There’s a spatial component to the sport that has to be filled,” Shaw said. “Even if you watch it in the [virtual reality simulator], which is great, you still have to actually get on the field and see your relationship with your position and your relationship to everybody else. We’re probably going to be there as a conference behind other conferences … but when we all get there, that’s going to be a huge step for each team, just to start getting on the grass.”
Shaw says he is confident in Stanford’s testing and the players’ ability to follow school and local guidelines. From helmet shields to masks to how water is dispensed, Stanford will operate differently when it enters this phase.
The purpose of the workouts, though, will not change.
“When you have to play the game or practice the game, it can’t be that different,” Shaw said. “We have to be able to tackle. We’re not going to be leaning on piles, we’re not going to be congregating a lot. Based on the information we have and what we know, the proximity of it and duration should not be an issue for how we’re going to practice.”
On Tuesday, Florida State tweeted a video of its conditioning drills, showing coaches wearing protective face shields and players wearing masks that they can pull up when they need them, and tug down around their neck when they don’t.
“The biggest factor is the social distancing element, having to maintain 6 feet of space,” first-year coach Mike Norvell said. “You can’t be within that 6 feet of space for more than 15 minutes, and wearing and utilizing masks in those situations. We’ve done a lot of research and gathered as much information as possible and putting together a plan where we can keep it to a minimum of times that there is contact or that you’re within that space.”
Many programs are exploring technology around face shields and coverings to determine its feasibility for the football activities that begin this week.
“Is there technology where you can have a full face mask that doesn’t fog up and covers the entire face and mitigate some of the risk of flying spit or things like that?” said Arizona State deputy athletic director Jean Boyd, who oversees football at the school. “Does technology help us have facial coverings with the thread count we need so you can breathe effectively and not put yourself in harm’s way? It’s all being examined to again keep risk as low as possible despite the fact that football is a contact sport. There’s no debating that.
“I haven’t heard any proposals about there being flag football this fall.”
Andrea Adelson contributed to this report.