Neal Brown hasn’t asked West Virginia University football’s strength coaches much about the numbers his players put up in their workouts. Those workouts from June 1-25 were voluntary, and he trusts those coaches will have his players ready.
The numbers the head coach entering his second season in Morgantown has been asking about are in a much different category.
Brown’s main concern as the Mountaineers build toward a full-fledged return is how many — or, more accurately, how few — of those players have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus that sent the sporting world to a screeching halt this spring and has college football inching toward preseason camp’s planned opening in August.
So far in Morgantown, those numbers have been good. Brown said Wednesday that WVU football has conducted 167 tests — 134 players and 33 staff – and there were only two players who tested positive for COVID-19. Both were asymptomatic and neither participated in workouts before their positive tests.
After learning of the first positive, WVU quarantined an unspecified number of players through contact tracing. All those players were tested again and came back negative for the virus. Another group quarantined after the second positive were scheduled to be tested Friday. Those results have not been announced.
Brown said he wasn’t surprised, pleasantly or otherwise, that WVU came up with only two positive tests. He didn’t have any expectations as to how many or how few of his players and staff would test positive.
“I knew we were going to have to deal with the virus at some point,” he said. “We have tried to educate our players and staff about the virus as much as we possibly can. I’m hesitant to talk about it because a lot of it is out of our control.”
What happens in and around the Milan Puskar Center is all WVU staff can affect. All workouts are done outside. Weightlifting is done in the center’s concourse. Social distancing is mandatory. The players wear masks. Team and position meetings are done virtually.
But the players have to remain vigilant on their own once they leave the facility, Brown said.
“We don’t have control over our student-athletes 24 hours a day, nor do we want that,” he said. “We’re trying to educate them on the best practices and we hope that they follow through. I’m hopeful that we will continue to keep our numbers down.
“We’re going to take every precaution to make sure it doesn’t happen while they’re in workouts or practices.”
The voluntary workouts were the first step in the gradual process of starting the 2020 college football season. Next are the mandatory workouts that come July 13. Brown and his staff will continue concocting a safe plan for the rest of the schedule, which will include the mandatory workouts, the walk-throughs and meetings that can begin July 24 and the Aug. 7 start of preseason camp.
Brown expects all those to look much different than the past, and the WVU coaches are looking at several different scenarios.
“This is not going to be a normal college football year in any aspect,” Brown said. “We try to put off making decisions as late as we can so we can get the most information. We’re currently working through a bunch of different models as far as anywhere from split practices to doing as many virtual meetings as possible or outdoor meetings. We’re going to put our players at as little risk as we possibly can.”
Each model comes with its own complications. In splitting practices, coaches will hold multiple sessions per day with different groups. Those sessions will need to be shorter, mainly to handle all the cleaning that must be done in between them. That also will cut into the coaches’ time to prepare every day.
Through all this, Brown said he remains cautiously optimistic, even when news out of other football programs could dampen that optimism. Clemson announced Friday that 14 more players tested positive for COVID-19, bringing that program’s total to 37, roughly a third of the roster. Texas Tech reported 23 positive results between players and staff. All but two have since recovered.
Boise State closed its campus and athletic facilities Monday due to eight positive or presumed positive tests on campus and will remain closed through Sunday. Morehouse College in Atlanta announced it will cancel its 2020 football season due to the virus.
Brown thinks college football will be played this fall, but it won’t be in a way everyone is used to.
“I just think it’s going to be different,” he said. “I think it’s going to be unique. There’s not going to be a normal, any type of normal activity … and I don’t know if we ever go back to normal. But there’s not going to be any type of normal activity until we get a vaccine.
“But I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to play football,” he continued. “That’s how we’re preparing. I just think it’s going to be different. I think we have to be outside-the-box thinkers with how we get our players to the games with keeping our virus numbers as low as possible and preventing injury. I think those are going to be the most important issues.”