The world has changed an incredible amount in recent months, and college football undoubtedly is going to experience further change as well – if there even is a college football season in 2020.
West Virginia’s football program has recently begun voluntary summer workouts. Those efforts will ramp up even further next month when the strength and conditioning sessions become mandatory leading to the start of preseason practice in early August.
The Mountaineers’ regular season opener is slated for Saturday, Sept. 5 when they are supposed to meet Florida State in a neutral site game in Atlanta. From there WVU will play 12 games over the next 13 weeks … if everything goes as planned.
But what we’ve learned since mid-March, when the coronavirus rattled the entire country and shutdown all athletics, is almost nothing goes as planned.
Still, the Mountaineers are laboring like the fall of 2020 will include college football, even if the season contains some unique variances.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to normal activity until we have a vaccine,” stated WVU head coach Neal Brown. “I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll have a football season, but it will be different. That’s how we’re preparing.
“We have to be outside-the-box thinkers in terms of how we get our players to the games while keeping our virus numbers as limited as possible and preventing injuries,” he added. “I think that is going to be the most important issue.”
The NCAA, Big 12 and WVU have each placed return-to-action dates on the calendar, which helps everyone involved in trying to formulate a plan.
“The scheduling piece has been hard; it’s been a nightmare really,” admitted Brown, who like all others in the profession waited through a couple months of uncertainty before finally getting some target dates. “If you take a vacation, you are supposed to be on quarantine when you get back, which I understand and am in favor of. The quarantine is why we haven’t had any positives when it comes to our voluntary workouts.”
WVU, which typically holds 15 spring practices, had to cancel those sessions in March after just two. Shortly after that, the players returned to homes, finishing their academic semester with online classes. The Mountaineer coaches also did their work virtually from home.
Things within West Virginia’s football program are slowly starting to open back up now, but that doesn’t mean everything is returning to how it was.
“We’re probably not going to do retreats this year as much because of safety concerns as anything,” said Brown in terms of a coaches’ getaway to piece together future practice schedules. “We’ll have plenty of time to get ready.
“There are really three important dates to me – July 13, which are the beginning of the eight-hour (per week mandatory workout) rule, July 24, which is the start of the 20-hour rule, and then I believe Aug. 7 is the first day of fall camp. Those are the three dates we focusing on.
“This is not a normally college football year in any aspect,” Brown continued. “It’s not going to be normal for our players, it’s not going to be normal for our staff, and it’s not going to be normal for you all (the media). I don’t know what it will look like. We may be on this (Zoom video conferencing) all the time.”
Things can change quickly and significantly in terms of combating COVID-19, and Brown believes a big key to success will be flexible.
“We’re trying to put off decisions as late as we can so we can get the most information possible,” explained WVU’s second-year head coach. “We’re currently working through a bunch of different models, anywhere from split practices to virtual meetings to outdoor meetings. We’re going to put our players at as little risk as we possibly can.”
With the limited spring practice and potential restrictions in the fall, Brown does believe it could impact the game-day play to some degree.
“I think you’ll see a simpler product. Practice time is going to be a premium, so I don’t know if you’re going to get as much good-on-good work, ones vs. ones, as you normally would. So will the product be as clean as a normal year? I’m not sure,” he speculated. “Will the average fan be able to see that? I’m not sure. But I have faith in the players playing at this level and the coaches coaching at this level that the product will still be something fans will be able to enjoy.
“It’s more the preparation that is going to be different,” Brown added. “If you think about it, you don’t necessarily want your top two people at any given position practicing together or even in the same meeting room together, because then you could lose them both and you’re down to your third. It’s a matter of how you’re going to separate your guys.”
For now, Brown is focusing on the short term, which involves his players getting physically ready for the practices and games that – hopefully – lie ahead.
Coaches aren’t allowed to be present at the current voluntary workouts, as only the strength and training staff can be part of those sessions. Brown said he trusts that strength coach Mike Joseph and those in charge will have the Mountaineer players ready for the next phase, when the head coach and assistant coaches can become more hands-on.
“I know the guys who are there are getting good work,” explained Brown of the voluntary workouts. “We’ll be able to see them for the first time on July 13. I think the guys who are here will be in a good position.”