Nearly five months after West Virginia’s spring season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mountaineers opened fall camp Monday with split-squad practices.
Even though the likelihood of the upcoming season seemingly grows slimmer by the day — leading college athletes to launch a social media campaign Sunday night — head coach Neal Brown said Monday was one of his best days professionally during this rocky period.
“You’re teaching, and you’re seeing people get better,” Brown said. “You can see guys, their demeanor has changed. They have something to look forward to.”
Brown said he and his players want to play college football this fall, and even though the Big 12 hasn’t released an official schedule for the shortened “9+1” season, they’ll continue preparing for the season under enhanced safety protocols.
To mark the official start of fall camp, Brown revealed a new team motto: “Stay well, get ready.”
“We’re gonna get ready to play until somebody tells us that we’re not going to,” Brown said. “That’s our goal, to be the most improved team in the country, and we’re gonna do this in a safe environment and a fun environment.”
The list of safety protocols WVU football has and will adhere to during all team activities is extremely thorough, and it leads Brown to believe that a football season could be safely played in Morgantown this fall.
The latest change is that the Mountaineers have been split into two groups for early preseason practices based upon the people they come in contact with most often. In addition, Brown said his staff will monitor GPS data to see how much time athletes spend in close contact during practices.
Brown also noted that testing has been successful throughout the summer at WVU. The Mountaineers have tested football players once per week, and while the team did endure a spike in cases in July, it opened fall camp with zero active cases of the virus.
In addition, all helmets are equipped with splash guards and shields, and players are still required to wear face coverings during workouts when not wearing a helmet. Brown added that the team weight room will remain outdoors, the team locker room is not currently in use, all meetings have been conducted virtually to this point and multiple cleaning protocols are in place to sanitize balls, gear and other equipment.
Brown said that many NFL teams are following similar safety protocols, and that WVU will remain in contact with pro teams in an effort to ensure more advanced player safety.
But safety measures aside, Brown foresees a somewhat slow reboot during the first days of the preseason. Even though the Mountaineers benefitted from 12 walkthroughs this summer under the revised Division I return to play model, Brown says some athletes are not where they need to be physically.
He said the Mountaineers will “gradually” get back into practicing. They practiced in helmets Monday, but may not practice in pads for several more days. Teams are allowed to practice in pads as early as the third day of camp.
“We’re gonna be smart in how we practice and prepare,” Brown said. “This is not a normal camp situation for us. We’re gonna have more breaks built in. It won’t be as physical. We have guys that are getting into shape. We’re being more careful than we would have.”
While the coronavirus stoppage has impacted athletes’ conditioning, Brown thinks the players are more mentally prepared this season, thanks to consistent virtual meetings during the offseason.
“We are further ahead mentality than we have ever been,” Brown said.