CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois football team was the first to return to campus earlier this month after all sports were put on the back burner in March because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Voluntary workouts are underway with strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez.
The next step comes in three weeks after new legislation was passed by the NCAA. From July 13-23, Illinois coaches can require eight hours per week of weight training, conditioning and film review.
Then from July 24-Aug. 6, teams can move to 20 hours per week of team activities with a split among strength and conditioning (up to eight hours), walkthroughs with use of a football (up to six hours) and film review with the full team, positions groups or individually (up to six hours).
For all that to happen, though, the Illinois football coaches have to make their own return to campus. They’re currently still working remotely, but are scheduled to go through the intake process with coronavirus testing at the end of this week.
“At that time we all will be tested and be tested weekly, just like the kids will be,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said during an appearance on ‘Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk,’ on WDWS 1400-AM.
The second stage of the new NCAA-approved workouts in late July and into August will allow Illinois to make up for some of what it lost when spring practices were canceled because of the pandemic.
“We’ll get two weeks of walkthrough, walk-and-talk teaching type sessions and then four weeks of camp once August starts,” Smith said. “That’s basically where it’s at right now, and we’re planning accordingly.”
Part of those plans may have seemed miniscule before the pandemic.
Like how to handle equipment once the team is back together participating in football-specific activities. The strength and conditioning work with Hernandez and his staff is limited to single-digit players in the weight room at one time. Everyone has their own rack and social distancing is required.
The seemingly simple addition of a football to the process requires even more restrictions and precautions.
“If a quarterback throws to one receiver, he’s got to use the same ball or same group of balls,” Smith said. “Once those balls are done, they get wiped down and you have another group of balls for the next receiver. It’s a lot more tedious than what it’s ever been — probably a lot more time consuming — but at the same time those are the steps we’re in right now and we have to take.”
Those steps have to be taken for safety’s sake. Illinois has not announced any positive COVID-19 tests and has said it won’t even if there are positive tests. Multiple football programs across the country, though, have announced positive tests. Iowa football announced a second batch Monday after the initial round of positives when the Hawkeyes first returned.
“It is a little concerning whenever you see that,” Smith said about the positive tests for multiple football programs. “Obviously, you don’t want that to hit home, but at the same time it’s out there and a possibility. That’s one of the concerns moving forward is how everybody will respond. That’s why I think this next month will be pretty telling. There’s still nothing etched in stone, per se. It’s a lot of plans, and hopefully we can continue to move forward and things will be positive.
“It’s unprecedented. We’re living in kind of unknown times. We’re the guinea pigs of this. We’re trying by trial and error. We’re trying to make the best educated decisions so we can make for our student-athletes and for the well being of everyone. We’ve got to make sure we take the advice from the so-called experts and use some common sense.”
That’s the situation Illinois and other programs face this summer. They have to try to balance the desire of the players to return to football and the coaching staff needing to prepare for the 2020 season with the realities of the current public health issues.
“Guys were constantly calling and texting back when they were home saying, ‘Coach, when are we going to be able to get back? This is driving me crazy,’” Smith said, with the Illini still not yet at 100 percent return to campus. “Kids just want to get back, I think, to a routine. They understand what’s at stake, and we’re being very cautious with it. I’m sure there’s some guys that have concerns and rightfully so, but we’re going to take every step that we need to ensure these guys’ safety and well being.
“That’s the first and foremost thought on our minds. Then try to provide them the best atmosphere they can come in and prepare and get ready for the season, but stay safe at the same time.”