Nearly a month after resuming required team activities in Charlottesville, the Virginia football program opened preseason practice Monday morning. The Cavaliers currently are scheduled to open their season one month from now when VMI visits Charlottesville on Friday, Sept. 11. The ongoing global pandemic cancelled the originally scheduled season opener with Georgia and could lead to future changes as well.
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged the challenges of trying to play a college football season in this environment and the behind the scenes conversations occurring among school and conference administrators, but still was excited to be back with his team in an official practice setting again.
“It’s really good to just have a chance to talk about our team. I’ve been really impressed with their motivation, their resilience, their leadership, but also the structure that we provided through this unique and challenging time,” Mendenhall said. “I was emotional today at practice just being on brand new grass practice fields as another step of progress in our program and the gratitude to our administration, to our donors, and just for providing or helping us achieve that next step has been really gratifying. It’s kind of a symbolic and meaningful marker of some of the work we’ve done here over the past four years.”
The Hoos began required team activities on July 15 that involved eight hours per week for a period of 10 days. For the next two weeks spanning July 26 to August 8, that grew to 20 hours per week. Monday’s start of preseason practice marked a five-day acclimatization period as required by NCAA rules. During the first two days, helmets are the only piece of protective equipment allowed. On days three and four, shoulder pads can be added. On the fifth and final day of the acclimatization period (and on subsequent days), the practices can move to full pads.
Teams can hold up to 25 practices after the five-day acclimatization period with limits on hours and the number of on-field sessions in a given day. Virginia was one of many programs nationally that missed out on spring practice due to the pandemic cancellations so Monday’s opening practice was the team’s first since Orange Bowl preparations back in December of last year (some football specific activities were underway during the required team activities last month).
Despite the lost time, Mendenhall said he does not feel rushed currently because of how the coaches and players handled the adjustments made during their time away from the facility. In the ramping up period over the last month, the coaches got a glimpse at how players had handled the time away from official program practices and workouts. The Hoos had held regularly occurring Zoom calls throughout the spring and early summer as well.
“I haven’t felt rushed. If anything, I still feel like there’ll be more than ample time, pending the season. We have five weeks preparation time,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve used technology through Zoom in our virtual meetings so effectively from what I’ve seen, last week especially with our 20-hour model. That was really helpful in assessing where our team was. Having the eight hours prior to that was really helpful. So there have been markers and benchmarks along the way that have made me feel more comfortable and not as rushed quite frankly with where we started from today in relation to when we play. I expected to be what you’re referring to, like we’d be rushed and might not be able to catch up. I’ve ended up being opposite of that where it will be managing that length of time and keeping our team healthy without feeling where I’m having to expedite. I didn’t expect that, but that’s where we are now.”
Prior to the limited activities over the last month and the start of practice Monday, some players had provided workout videos to the coaches and the players were still checking in during the scheduled Zoom calls. Getting a chance to see the players in person provided a more detailed view, though.
Mendenhall said most of the players returned to Charlottesville in shape and at a good baseline to resume in-person strength and conditioning work. Mendenhall said that five players opted out – not all were COVID-19 related decisions – for returning at this point and he indicated that number has been steady for a while now.
“I was really impressed for the overwhelming majority that came back,” Mendenhall said. “That does not mean they progressed at the same level as if they would have been with us the entire time. So just bluntly, where we are today would be the equivalent of where we were when we left. Our strength numbers are just now back to where we left, when we departed. That’s actually ahead of where we thought we would be. We didn’t believe there would be gains made. We were just hopeful they could stay as close to as possible to baseline, but it’s taken us the time we’ve had our players back to today where we feel really good with our baseline. Now we have a chance to just expand from there. I don’t know where that compares to the rest of the country, but that’s – transparency – where we are.”
The start of preseason practice, obviously, does not eliminate the current situation surrounding college sports. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic means that state regulations, medical advice, and more must remain under consideration even as the Hoos move into the preseason phase of their preparations. The bubble and list of protocols that UVA created when players returned in July remains in place right now. That means the players are in joint housing accommodations on Grounds, that things like meals and laundry have specific guidelines, and that social distancing and mask-wearing remains an emphasis.
In fact, the resumption of full football activities has added layers. Mendenhall said that most players have moved to full shields over their facemaks (a few are wearing a visor and a cloth covering over the lower portion of the facemask) with helmets now in play, for example. The players are required to stay a full arm’s length apart on the sidelines and to quickly create space as soon as a play is over too. Coaches wear masks or face shields throughout practice. Mendenhall said he spends much of his time currently on managing the protocols related to the virus. UVA had no new posititive COVID-19 tests in its latest round of testing.
Beyond that, the coaches have also broken down the day a little bit differently for this preseason. Instead of every player being in a meeting or lifting, everything is divided into small groups and the team activities are spaced out through the day too. The full team practice period also fits into a more compact time window for now.
“We have an hour and a half lift slash meet block later today where one side will lift and the other side will meet. Those lifting groups, we break into sub groups so there will be four smaller groups for social distancing to keep us safe,” Mendenhall said. “Our protocols have been really effective, but they’re only effective if the players follow, which they have. So that’s working really well. There will be another hour and a half for football early this afternoon and then another hour and a half later tonight, spaced out within what the rules are. So our intent is for the football specific part to be our competitive work, which you saw mostly team this morning. Then there will be walk-throughs and other more individual type oriented things throughout the day. the intent is we have the whole day. School is currently not in so again managing mental health, we found that smaller bursts then recovery then smaller bursts, it’s nice to have the next thing to look forward to and occupy a full day rather than have it all done and then just sitting and isolating in dorm rooms and those kinds of things.”
All of the plans and protocols, of course, continue against a backdrop of uncertainty. Just last week, the ACC announced its revised fall sports plan with altered schedules for the football teams. Internet reports began to circulate over the weekend that the Big Ten and possibly others might cancel the fall sports season altogether. Some schools, including UVA, already announced that classes would begin online at the start of the semester.
That means the football team is locked in on trying to prepare for the 2020 season while knowing that it might never happen. Mendenhall has tried to keep the focus on smaller goals right now instead.
“I’ve worked hard to frame this time period not in relation to if we’ll play or if we won’t play, but to how much growth can we accomplish daily,” Mendenhall said. “What kind of circumstances and what kind of program can I provide for growth that will be meaningful and also how much fun can I have our players have daily in the meantime. That’s helped make some sense of the circumstances we’ve been under for quite some time.”