Virginia Football Notes: COVID-19 Protocols

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University of Virginia head football coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday (July 13) that a fall football season is “possible” while acknowledging that doing so in the current health climate poses a significant challenge.

“Possible yes. Challenging would be an understatement,” Mendenhall said in a videoconference with media.

The safety protocols in place during Virginia football’s summer workout sessions provide a glimpse of the challenges facing college football programs this fall.

Senior defensive end Richard Burney checks in the weekend the student-athletes were allowed back on Grounds. ~ Photo credit: Melissa Dudek, Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Housing for the Student-Athletes

“Our players are all in a series of dorms that are all together,” Mendenhall said. “There is one exit, one entry into the dorms. Anything that’s after hours, we have a checkpoint there, monitoring anyone in and out. Players are masking and social distancing. They are staying with others that they’ll be staying with later in the year when the rest of the students arrive in their off-grounds housing, so those accommodations have already been made. There’s no visitors to their rooms – family or friends or even other players. So once the players are in their rooms, there’s no visitors. Common spaces are outside. Those picnic tables and chairs are already spaced appropriately. All their meals, they pick up their meals from outside in a tent and take those back to their room. We did have a cookout on Saturday (July 11) with chairs spread out in kind of a giant picnic format. That was outside.”

Heading to and Entering The McCue Center for a Workout

“When they come to McCue, it’s either walking, which is about a 15-minute walk, socially distanced, or no more than four to a car, because it’s only about three minutes and that doesn’t qualify for less than six feet, more than 15 minutes in terms of contact tracing,” Mendenhall said. “There is a limit. There’s no piling into vehicles, so to speak. When you get here, you have to check in. You show a cue code that asks you a series of questions that you reply to. If you reply appropriately, the door opens. There is a trainer there right before you get in. While you’re waiting in line you’re socially distanced. Before you get in, your temperature is taken by one of the trainers. If the temperature is appropriate, the questionnaire is appropriate, then you get a wristband and once you have that wristband it lasts you for that day. You go through the protocol again the very next morning and you that every day.”

Training/Workouts

“Our guys are training with masks on – or gaiters, like you might wear skiing – and it’s more challenging,” Mendenhall said. “A lot of time that’s how you train for altitude training, but it’s harder to breath and it’s hotter, and so we’re working hard to keep our players safe and have them become fit at the same time. So what will look different is the gaiters. What will look different is as players are waiting in line, they’re socially distanced. What will look different is the transitions. There’s chairs and spaces where they have to stand that are separate from each other.”

In Between Workouts

“We have like what you’d see if you were spraying weeds on your lawn,” Mendenhall said. “We have these backpacks, so after small groups train in the weight room, when they’re done there’s a giant spraying down of everything in the weight room, a drying, a complete deep clean before the next group comes in with the appropriate time that’s been determined to make sure the cleansing agents work, have dried, and have the effect. So it’s kind of like a Ghostbusters backpack kind of thing where guys are spraying stuff down in between each workout. While that’s happening, players are sitting in chairs more than six feet apart in the staying area, waiting to be allowed in.”

Post Workout

“The players have no access to the locker room,” Mendenhall said. “They show up to the facility already dressed. They leave the facility and go back to their rooms and shower there. Laundry services are picking up their equipment at an outside drop-off to make sure that’s not spreading any virus contaminants.”

More COVID-19 Protocols

“For players that have already manifested symptoms, they’re quarantined off, so they’re a little more isolated than the rest of our team,” Mendenhall said. This was part of his response to a question about addressing mental health issues of student-athletes. “Our contact tracing players, they are isolated and they actually aren’t allowed to have a roommate. We have multiple protocols going all at the same time. We have a team programming protocol. We have a first years programming protocol. We have a COVID positive test protocol. We have a contact trace protocol, and then we have those with symptoms that still tested negative and a protocol for them. All those protocols and programming are going on at the same time. [Virginia Sports Psychologist Jason] Freeman and those working with him are working with each of those groups, the same as us as coaches and our support staff.”

In summation, “it’s a giant operation we have going,” Mendenhall said. “Our support has been amazing. We’re adjusting as we go. It’s taking a lot to this point, but I’m really encouraged by the people we have and the effort they’re putting in.”

Student-athletes returned to Grounds for voluntary workouts on July 5. On Friday, July 10, UVA announced that of the 110 student athletes tested, two tested positive for COVID-19. Summer workouts have continued, though, and on Wednesday (July 15) the Cavalier football program entered “required activity” that includes up to eight hours per week of weight training, conditioning, and film review.

“Our plan along the way was very intentional and conservative,” Mendenhall said. “We worked with the end in mind. We really tried to bump up our return as close to required activities as possible, knowing that and trusting that our players would behave responsibly, maturely, would train appropriately, be with their families in a time that they normally don’t have, and then as close to required football as we could get we would bring them back then, which was for the third session of summer school basically (started Monday). We gathered as much information as possible, knowing the data on the virus is still relatively young. We were watching what was happening. We were applying best practices. We were learning as much as we could, and so for a group of young people that we haven’t seen since spring break to come back and have the initial numbers – and I’ll emphasize that – the initial numbers we had was a real testament to them considering the time they were away. I think they’ve handled the masking, the social distancing, the hand washing, and so many other protocols we have in place at a strong level. It’s not habitual yet, and it’s not truly part of our culture yet, but I do believe the information that we gathered along the way from other programs, not only internally but externally, as our players were viewing, as we were viewing it, and adapting and applying in our program, has allowed us a really strong return and a strong initial starting point. I’ll say initial because there is still a lot of work to do.”

Coach Mendenhall and his staff balance maintaining a high level of safety for the student-athletes with preparing sufficiently to play high-level football if a season does come to fruition. Mendenhall is preparing his team as if the September 7 matchup with Georgia in Atlanta (GA) will take place.

“It’s really unique,” Mendenhall said. “We still have to have a demand protocol, an expectation of what we know it looks like to play college football at the highest level. It’s very challenging right now to acknowledge the threat of the virus, acknowledge the possible risk the players we love and care about are under, and then ask them appropriately to condition and become ready for this game that’s challenging to prepare for even under normal circumstances. We’re all feeling kind of an internal turmoil of asking, but not asking too much, and trying to keep players safe, but not at the expense of being prepared. There’s a lot of things going at the same time, which I feel kind of an internal friction point, but I’m still wrestling with and working on the right approach.”

Helping the coaches as far as player accountability is concerned are players. Seniors Charles Snowden and Terrell Jana have risen to the top of the program leadership-wise the past few years, and Mendenhall praised the dynamic duo with leading the way this summer.

“They’re exceptional in every way,” Mendenhall said of Snowden and Jana. “So much of our current protocol, including nightly check-ins, our players are checking in with leaders on our team and it’s amazing the accountability they’re having. They’re being much more effective than I think than would come from if they were checking in with coaches. This is going to be player driven. When we start on Wednesday, we have the players two hours per day. There’s 22 more hours that have to be managed. The individual and social choices and commitment of our players to each other is what is going to drive the success or failure of this initiative. This can’t be managed into success. This is person choice based on commitment to team. Empathy, maybe even more than science, will drive the outcome to this. Really considering someone else before yourself, which is a team environment or a family environment more than any, and so Jana and Snowden are driving that and asking for that at the very highest level, and our team is responding. Those kinds of initiatives have the best chance to hold and galvanize.”

This required activity period runs through July 25. On July 26, another required activity session begins and runs through August 8. During the time players will have up to 20 hours per week of football-related activity, including walk-thru sessions. Fall training camp begins August 9.

Mendenhall hopes to have a clearer picture of what this coming season will look like by the end of July.

NCAA Issues New Return-To-Sport Guidelines

The NCAA Sport Science Institute has released additional guidelines regarding the protection of athletes and prevention of community spread of COVID-19. NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline and NCAA President Mark Emmert are quoted in the NCAA’s press release, most of which is posted below. Click here for the full release.

The NCAA Sport Science Institute has released the Resocialization of Collegiate Sport: Developing Standards for Practice and Competition to extend previous guidance and provide updated recommendations about the protection of athletes and prevention of community spread of COVID-19.

The guidelines are designed to inform schools in responding appropriately based on their specific circumstances and in the best interest of returning college athletes’ health and well-being. Many sports require close, personal contact and require specially crafted guidelines. Among the recommendations put forth:

– Daily self-health checks.

– The appropriate use of face coverings and social distancing during training, competition and outside of athletics.

– Testing strategies for all athletics activities, including pre-season, regular season and post-season.

– Testing and results within 72 hours of competition in high contact risk sports.

– Member schools must adhere to public health standards set by their local communities.

“Any recommendation on a pathway toward a safe return to sport will depend on the national trajectory of COVID-19 spread,” said Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer. “The idea of sport resocialization is predicated on a scenario of reduced or flattened infection rates.”

“When we made the extremely difficult decision to cancel last spring’s championships it was because there was simply no way to conduct them safely,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert. “This document lays out the advice of health care professionals as to how to resume college sports if we can achieve an environment where COVID-19 rates are manageable. Today, sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

More UVA Football Notes

Ricky Brumfield is entering his third season as Virginia football Special Teams Coordinator. As of Tuesday (July 15), he has added a new responsibility: Tight Ends Coach. This is not a new role for Brumfield, who was Texas-San Antonio’s Special Teams Coordinator and Tight Ends coach before moving on to UVA.

– Virginia’s starting outside linebackers were included on the preseason Bednarik Award Watch List. Senior Charles Snowden is coming off a season in which he totaled 72 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, five sacks and four pass breakups for the ACC Coastal Division champion Cavaliers. He earned Honorable Mention All-ACC honors for his performance.

Meanwhile, junior Noah Taylor enjoyed a breakout 2019 campaign in which he totaled 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four pass breakups and two interceptions. He added a key blocked punt in the season-opening win at Pittsburgh.

The Bednarik Award, given annually since 1995, goes to College Football’s Defensive Player of the Year.

– On the recruiting front, Episcopal (Alexandria, VA) class of 2021 offensive tackle Logan Taylor is set to make his college announcement on Friday (July 17) at 11 a.m. EST. Experts from 247Sports and Rivals have Virginia has the outright favorite for the 6’8”, 290-pound rising senior. Taylor, a 4-star recruit according to 247Sports, would be the second Episcopal product in as many classes to sign with the Hoos. Defensive back Elijah Gaines inked with UVA in last year’s class.

If Taylor does come on board as predicted, UVA would have three offensive line commitments in the class. Two other O-line targets made their decisions recently, with Ethan Mort selecting Central Florida and William Reed picking Cal.

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