After Expressing Previous Concerns, ‘About 40’ Illini Players Report For First Voluntary Workouts

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois football players began to report Monday for the first set of voluntary workouts after veteran leaders expressed concern over what the athletics department is calling its “Plans for Safe Return”.

The plan, which was first introduced on May 22, is for football players to be followed by members of men’s basketball roster to return to the Champaign-Urbana this month to “a tightly choreographed schedule that includes robust testing and initial periods of quarantine...in small groups over a series of days in early June.”

And it is that last issue of the workouts whether in the weight room or on the practice fields, that had veteran players on the Illinois football roster questioning what kind of work they can get done on campus versus staying in their home base and working within the public reopening protocols in their given state.

The NCAA’s Division I Council passed a measure in late May to allow football and basketball student-athletes participate in on-campus voluntary athletics activities beginning this month “as long as all local, state and federal regulations are followed.”

However, most of those veteran players which expressed these concerns a few weeks ago, arrived on campus starting Monday. Illinois athletics officials confirmed “about 40” members of the Illini roster were part of the first small group of players to arrive Monday for these workouts. The U of I athletics department says safety protocols for these workouts were “borrowed from comparable procedures crafted by the National Football League, National Basketball Association, United States Olympic Committee, NCAA, and Big Ten Conference”.

The previous distress by veteran football players over these workouts wasn’t necessarily about safety but whether the restrictions would prohibit quality physical work from being done as Illinois prepares for a 2020 season that has long been seen as a target for a substantial campaign in Lovie Smith’s five-year rebuilding effort of Illini football.

Illini players had questioned whether these voluntary workouts are the best way to get physical work done before presumably the entire team would plan to get together in August to start a 2020 season. A secondary purpose of these workouts appears to be the University of Illinois athletics department planning to show how safe it can be to have athletes and students on campus while still the school continues to still deliberate a decision on in-person classes for the upcoming fall semester. Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman suggested when he announced this plan that he believed “most if not all” would participate in these workouts and wouldn’t receive much pushback on participation. However, some veteran football players expressed scrutiny over being a test case when some say they already have the opportunity to use private gym equipment and can remotely receive a disciplined workout plan from strength coach Lou Hernandez.

Illinois senior linebacker Jake Hansen, in a Zoom video media conference on May 27, suggested he has been discussing with his parents and members of the Illini football roster whether he could get more physical work done in his home state in Florida instead of attending these voluntary workouts.

“For me, it’s more about a training standpoint like are we going to be able to train at the highest level? I don’t want to come back if we can’t get in the weight room and do what we normally do,” Hansen said. “From what our AD and our trainer, Jeremy Bush, have come up with, it’s starting to look pretty good.”

However, Hansen was one of the “about 40 players” to report to Illinois Monday morning for these workouts. Junior offensive lineman Kendrick Green, who has been in the Champaign area during the state’s shelter-in-place orders and now staged reopening plan, said it would be important for younger players to see him and other veteran members of the Illini roster show up for these workouts.

“For me, it’s all about riding for the brand,” Green said. “If it’s for the boys and for the team, I’m with it one hundred percent. I think a lot of guys will come back but for me, being a leader in all, if I’m not coming back, doing the same thing and going through the same struggle with (younger players), how can I expect them to do it?”

The university’s public health and medical return protocol includes initial and ongoing viral and antibody testing, initial quarantining, contact tracing, and arrangements for extended quarantine and care of any student-athlete testing positive for COVID-19. This means the workouts will not be shut down if athletes or strength and conditioning personnel test positive for the coronavirus. Arkansas State reported that seven athletes from three sports programs tested positive last week and will remain in quarantine for 14 days, the university said. An Auburn University athletics spokesperson confirmed to CNN that three football players tested positive for COVID-19. The three athletes are asymptomatic and have been placed in self-isolation in a dorm away from the rest of the team.

The Texas Tech athletic department on Monday confirmed recent positive tests for COVID-19 within the men's basketball program but did not provide a number of affected athletes. The University of Iowa athletics department has confirmed one person has tested positive. Marshall University and Oklahoma State University announced they've each had several athletes test positive. Iowa State University reported one new case. The new cases come after multiple reports surfaced last week that at least five players on the University of Alabama football team tested positive for the virus.

An Illinois athletics spokesperson confirmed in a media release sent out Monday that “due to privacy laws, throughout the summer and the new academic year, the Illinois Athletics Communication staff will not share or confirm any information regarding the health of student-athletes or (Illinois athletics) staff members as it pertains to COVID-19.”

By early July, Illinois athletics anticipates student-athletes from women's basketball, volleyball, and soccer will have returned to campus as well and the athletics department “will evaluate the ability to return student-athletes from sports beyond these five as the summer progresses.” 

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