Football: COVID-19 concerns cloud start of UL preseason camp
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, August 8, 2020
Click here for photos of today's practice.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the year for the UL football team is happening this month, long before its 2020 schedule unfolds.
The Ragin’ Cajuns opened their 10-day preseason camp Friday night amid unprecedented circumstances, their season perhaps on the brink because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and dependent largely on whether or not they and FBS programs nationwide can stay healthy enough to actually play.
“I think this is the ultimate test of commitment,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said the day before camp started.
“It’s a measure of commitment from each individual involved. And we’re talking about close to 215 people that will be getting tested every week in our athletic inner bubble.”
Tested metaphorically, that is, in the sense that following established health protocols is critical to minimizing spread of the virus.
In terms of actual testing, those are not being conducted on a regular basis for the masses in the UL athletic department but rather on an as-needed daily basis as determined by the program’s medical staff.
Not all Cajun players and coaches, in other words, are being tested regularly.
Nevertheless, the protocols have resulted in all sorts of changes for the Cajuns compared to prior preseason camps.
For senior linebacker Joe Dillon and others, that means a necessity to adhere to physical distancing limitations and face mask-use requirements that now have become what he calls “the new normal.”
“It’s been pretty difficult,” Dillon said, “but you learn to adjust.”
Dillon suggested that he personally does not feel at risk.
“For the most part, the coaching staff, our trainers … they’re doing their best to keep us safe each way possible,” he said. “They make sure they emphasize using the mask. They for sure make sure everybody’s social distancing.
“And they’re just trying their best to make sure that we stay healthy. They lower the risk as (much as) possible.
“As long as they’re trying their best to actually make sure that we’re healthy,” Dillon added, “then we’re all still doing something we actually love; I mean, I don’t see that as a problem.”
'THE KEY HERE IS EDUCATION'
Dillon suggested it’s up to every individual to do what’s right, including adhering to all protocols and being honest about how you’re feeling.
“I’m pretty confident in myself knowing that I probably will say the right thing, and do the right thing,” he said, “as far as to make sure that my teammates stay healthy around me — not trying to be selfish or nothing and say I am all right knowing that I probably am sick one day, and not saying nothing at all.”
Napier feels honesty is the best policy.
“I think the key here is education; then you’ve got a certain level of knowledge about these things,” said Napier, whose Cajuns, are least for now, are scheduled to open Sept. 5 at home against McNeese. “But like we say all the time, ‘It’s one thing to know; it’s another thing to apply.’
“That’s the whole key. Each individual person has got to apply what we’ve learned around this virus to help mitigate the spread and also help prevent (it) from destroying us from the inside out.”
More than 160,000 deaths and 4.9 million cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the United States alone, according to Johns Hopkins University, while there have been more than 715,000 deaths and 19.1 million cases worldwide.
Back in June, on the same day reports surfaced that 30 LSU football players were in quarantine, UL said 10 of its student-athletes from multiple unspecified sports programs were in quarantine, including three who had tested positive for COVID-19. A short time later, it became known that two more Cajun student-athletes had tested positive.
But when the Cajuns opened camp, a team spokesman said Friday, they had no current positive tests and no student-athletes currently in quarantine or isolation.
No one on the UL roster, Napier added, has opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns.
“Certain (I) would be understanding of that,” the Cajuns coach said, “if you had a very compromising situation at home or maybe you didn’t feel safe.
“I have no issue with that at all.”
Still, the sense of risk is real for several Cajun football players.
UL quarterback Levi Lewis said that’s especially the case for “guys who have problems with either sickle cells or (other medical) issues.”
Those with certain pre-existing medical conditions are more susceptible to complications if they contract the virus.
Sickle cell anemia, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website, is “inherited red blood cell disorder in which there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.”
“But with our age group it’s not that much,” Lewis said. “I would say for the coaches, with their wives and their kids, it’s a risk for them, but for us it’s mainly just (about) quarantining if we catch it.
“We all know it’s a big risk,” Lewis added. “We’ve just got adapt to it, stay safe, keep wearing our masks and see what the (Louisiana) governor has to say next.”
Defensive lineman Tayland Humphrey is a Houston area high school product who played two years at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and transferred to UL from Florida International University prior to last season.
“I feel like there’s risk everywhere,” Humphrey said, “but we do what we’ve got to do over here to take care of ourselves and our staff and coaches by wearing face masks and taking precautionary measures every day.”
Those measures are plentiful.
“Coming up to the facilities you’ve got certain doors that are locked and certain exit doors that you can’t even walk out no more,” Humphrey said. “We come in; we get pre-screened every day. We’ve got to wear the face mask all the time. Meals are different; only four to a table, 6 feet apart.”
Working out while wearing a mask has proven challenging for some Cajuns.
Adding helmets to the equation only complicates things.
When camp began Friday, UL players and coaches appeared to be wearing various forms of face coverings at the closed practice, including a helmeted shield for Napier that, based on a photo, he had up on occasion when giving instructions from a distance.
“It’s tough. It’s hard to breath in. … It gets kind of in the way,” center Shane Vallot said of the mask.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever really, really get used to it, but we do the best we can,” offensive lineman Cole Prudhomme added. “If anything, it’s just extra conditioning.”
Prudhomme credited UL associate director of sports medicine for football Pat Richards and his staff for “following the CDC guidelines they were given.”
“Even in the training room, only so many people are allowed … getting treatment,” Prudhomme said.
“They’re doing a phenomenal job of keeping us on our toes with the rules, and I’d say our team is doing a good job of listening to Mr. Pat and his staff and trying to do the best we can.”
It’s not just the dining room and training room where things are different.
In the UL weight room, hygiene is the top priority.
“I think I can add, and my staff members can add, another line to our resume, just as being ‘expert cleaners,’” strength and conditioning director Mark Hocke said, “because we spray down and wipe down the weight room multiple times a day, sometimes up to six-to-eight times a day, certainly before and after every group.”
Whether or not all the precautions are enough to allow the Cajuns to play a full season remains to be seen.
UL already anticipates it has lost a November game at Missouri of the SEC, which recent went to a 10-game conference only format.
In addition to its opener, UL also has September non-conference games scheduled against Wyoming of the Mountain West at Cajun Field and on the road at FBS independent New Mexico State.
The Cajuns have not yet announced how they will alter their 2020 schedule.
But the Sun Belt has announced that it plans to play a full eight-game conference schedule with teams allowed to also play up to four non-conference games, and already SBC teams are making changes to their schedules to accommodate canceled games because several FCS leagues have canceled or postponed their seasons and other FBS conferences in addition to the SEC have made modifications to theirs.
Appalachian State of the Sun Belt lost its game with ACC-member Wake Forest, South Alabama has added AAC-member Tulane to its schedule and — in a twist — Troy plans to play Middle Tennessee of Conference USA twice this season.
UL Monroe of the Sun Belt announced Friday that it will play Louisiana Tech of Conference USA in Shreveport on Nov. 21, the same day that Cajuns were to have played Missouri.
Meanwhile, UL’s current season-opening opponent, McNeese of the FCS Southland Conference, announced Thursday that it would delay the start of its preseason camp — originally set for Friday — so it could implement plans to meet guidelines set by the NCAA on Wednesday.
Expressing what it called “serious concerns about the continuing high levels of COVID-19 infection in many parts of the nation,” the NCAA Board of Governors has directed all schools and conferences to meet specific requirements including, but not limited to, adherence to return-to-sport guidelines issued by the NCAA Sport Science Institute and to federal, state and local guidelines related to COVID-19; establishment of an opt-out avenue for all student-athletes with the assurance that scholarships will remain intact; and establishment of a plan to cover COVID-19 related medical expenses for student-athletes.
The return-to-sport guidelines include adherence to COVID-19 testing with results received within 72 hours of competition, daily self-health checks, physical distancing plans, implementation of mask/cloth face covering usage and a 14-day quarantine for all individuals with high-risk exposure to the virus.
The testing is a particularly costly component of the guidelines.
For Cajuns coach Napier, compliance really is critical.
“The integrity and discipline and togetherness that we exhibit throughout this competitive year,” he said, “I think is more important than ever … and they’re gonna be magnified more than ever.
“We talk a lot about protecting ourselves, protecting our families, protecting our team and — most importantly — protecting our community and the people that are at-risk.”
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