Football coaches could begin interacting with their players as soon as the second week of July and by mid-July, they’ll be conducting walk-through practices, with a ball. That’s according to an NCAA proposal set for approval this week.
Continuing their progress toward an on-time kickoff to the season, college athletic leaders are set to take a giant leap down that path. On Thursday, the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee is expected to approve the long-talked-about six-week preseason practice plan and recommend it to the NCAA D-I Council. The plan is in the last stages of finalization. A draft of the plan has been circulated to conference offices and athletic departments for feedback. The D-I Council would approve the final version of the plan at its next meeting on June 17. Only small adjustments are expected over the next three days. “We’re 90% there,” Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director and chair of the Oversight Committee, told Sports Illustrated in an interview Monday.
Under the plan, normal “required” summer workouts, which includes coaching interaction, could begin for some as early as July 6. Last month, the NCAA granted schools the ability beginning June 1 to hold on-campus voluntary workouts, which do not include coaching interaction. In required workouts, athletes can spend six hours a week with the strength staff on weight training and conditioning and spend two hours with coaches for film study. The required workouts would lead into what’s being termed as “enhanced” summer training, a two-week stretch constituting the first portion of the proposed six-week preseason practice plan.
In enhanced summer training, athletes are allowed 20 hours a week for activities. That includes eight hours of strength training and film review, an hour walk-through practice each day and an hour of daily team meetings. Enhanced training has been compared to NFL OTAs, but players cannot wear helmets or pads during walk-throughs. However, they can use a football, the plan says. A normal four-week preseason camp would begin after two weeks of enhanced training.
The start date of each of these activity segments—required workouts, enhanced training and preseason camp—is determined by a team’s first game. Those starting on Week 1, Labor Day weekend, could begin required workouts July 13, enhanced training July 24 and camp Aug. 7. For those starting a week before, on Week 0, activities can move up by a week. The final version of the plan could see slight adjustments in those dates, says Lyons.
The Oversight Committee decided against extending the unlimited camp hours beyond the date that a school begins classes. A traditional August camp normally takes place in the two-to-three weeks before class starts. For the most part, coaches are allowed an unlimited time with athletes. Once classes begin, they are restricted to 20 hours a week. Several universities have moved up their start dates to early August in an attempt to complete the fall semester ahead of the traditional flu season, a way to help prevent a second wave of coronavirus. For instance, Notre Dame will begin classes Aug. 10, two weeks early. That gives coach Brian Kelly and staff only a few days to work with athletes during the traditional camp time. “Coaches are looking for uniformity, but we’ve always had institutions start classes at different times,” Lyons says. “The coaches starting earlier are going to say they’re at a disadvantage, but even when they’re not in classes, they’re right around the 20 hours anyway.”
Coaches are on board with the preseason plan, says Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. In fact, officials are beginning to now study specifics related to camp and in-season practices, as well as sideline protocols during games. “It is going to be a unique year in seeing social distancing on the sideline,” Berry says. Imagine older coaches wearing masks during games and a team’s sideline area—between the 30-yard lines—expanded to provide social distancing. Also, August camp may again include two-a-days, just not the ones you’re used to. In an effort to minimize risk, coaches have discussed holding two-to-four separate practices a day, each including a different and smaller group of players.
Meanwhile, the NBA is considering a plan to require coaches of 65 years or older to wear masks during games while on the bench. The same is being discussed on some campuses for football coaches on the sidelines. “I’m not sure if that’s going to become universal or local, but I can tell you that we’ve talked about that here—coaches will be wearing PPE, especially the older ones,” Lyons says. At least five coaches at the FBS level are 65 or older, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and North Carolina’s Mack Brown, both 68.
Team meetings will be different too. There might not be any at all, says Berry. He’s heard from coaches who plan to continue holding virtual meetings. “Coaches have learned a whole new way to communicate with players,” he says. “That’s probably not going away—this year and in the future.”
All of these plans forward could be derailed with virus spikes across states and campuses, Lyons warns. Already, programs have reported that several of their athletes have tested positive since returning to voluntary workouts, an expected result. However, several states are experiencing a surge in the virus since reopening. Lyons doesn’t expect a universal shutdown if the virus delays or interrupts a portion of schools during the preseason. That is a local issue. “You could end up having a state that is having a spike and go back to Phase I,” he says. “That’s where you’ll have to deal with it on a local basis and not a national basis.”
As part of the preseason plan, a team must practice four weeks before playing its first game, a rule that could conceivably impact early-season games if a program’s camp is interrupted. College officials have long expected that not all 130 FBS teams will start on time. In fact, during a conference call with members of the White House reopening task force last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert said officials were preparing as if every team won’t play football this year. “In all likelihood we’ll have some problems in preseason camps. There are just so many universities,” says Berry, who sits on the Oversight Committee.
Virus outbreaks aren’t only possible in the preseason. Many expect that some programs won’t play a full schedule of games because of outbreaks. “The idea of interrupted seasons is fairly likely,” says Berry. “The idea of flexible scheduling is needed. With the number of universities we have, on Sunday you might find out your opponent isn’t going to play this week. Got to pick up another game. Might have two teams show up and can’t play (that day).”
Conference commissioners are exploring in-season universal testing protocols for their conferences, Lyons says. They could eventually evolve into a nationwide policy, but those conversations are in their infancy. The latest discussions involve a road team testing each of its athletes Friday morning before it departs. Both teams would then conduct tests Saturday morning before the game. However, many unanswered questions remain. The most notable of which involves those athletes who did not test positive. “We at West Virginia can’t say, ‘We’re contact tracing and if he shows up positive, everybody he’s been around is also considered ineligible for the game,’” Lyons says. “Then another school says, ‘It’s just the person who shows up positive.’ We have to be on the same page.”
Advancements in testing have administrators confident in frequent in-season testing, which in turn has them optimistic about playing a 2020 season. However, the issue of attendance remains uncertain. Several athletic directors have announced potential plans to fill stadiums to 25% to 50% of capacity. Others are expecting full stadiums, which many doctors say is implausible. Meanwhile, another group is delaying concrete answers regarding attendance until as late as mid-August.