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BYU football camp opens with concerns about the Cougars’ vaccination rates while Kalani Sitake pushes guys to get their shots

BYU is not mandating that its students or staff members get the vaccine, but the football coaching staff is clearly recommending it as COVID-19 numbers rise in Utah

SHARE BYU football camp opens with concerns about the Cougars’ vaccination rates while Kalani Sitake pushes guys to get their shots
BYU QBs Jaren Hall and Rhett Reilly, wearing blue jerseys, leave practice.

BYU’s quarterbacks Jaren Hall and Rhett Reilly leave practice in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Rumors have swirled throughout the summer that a relatively high number of BYU football players and coaches have not been vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, even as school and athletic department officials have encouraged all students and staff to get their shots.

After the Cougars wrapped up their first practice of 2021 preseason training camp Thursday morning at the practice field behind the Student Athlete Building, head coach Kalani Sitake appeared at a news conference and was given the chance to provide answers, but would not.

“Well, I don’t know the details of it all,” Sitake said, when asked for the program’s vaccination rate. “But I know we are working (on it). … I mean, it is really important for us to get on the field. We have done a great job as a program and a department, working with our sports medicine department last year, to get on the field. And we are continuing to do that now.”

“I know it is really important. I am concerned about the well-being of everyone. But that is not my expertise. My expertise is to try to get these guys in a position to try to get to the game. That means looking at the protocols and policies and working with the people who are in charge and have the expertise in that field.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake on program’s vaccination rate

Indeed, BYU was the only program in the West to play a full schedule of football last fall in the midst of the pandemic and only had to withdraw from only one game, on Sept. 19, 2020, against Army due to the spread of the virus within the program.

Wednesday, a couple members of Sitake’s staff, defensive ends coach Preston Hadley and graduate assistant Kyle Griffitts, made posts on social media accounts showing them getting their shots, but neither appeared to display a willing attitude.

Asked Thursday for the coaching staff’s vaccination rate after the question about the percentage of his players who have received the vaccine as COVID-19 and delta variant numbers continue to rise in Utah, Sitake again demurred.

“No, I am not going to share that,” he said.

As he often does, Sitake referred questions to athletic director Tom Holmoe.

“I know it is really important,” Sitake said. “I am concerned about the well-being of everyone. But that is not my expertise. My expertise is to try to get these guys in a position to try to get to the game. That means looking at the protocols and policies and working with the people who are in charge and have the expertise in that field.”

Sitake said the athletic department has brought in medical experts to educate players and coaches alike about the vaccine.

“That is what we are committed to do, and a lot of that has to do with education and letting them know what is happening daily with COVID and the delta variant and things like that.” Sitake said.

A football spokesperson confirmed that BYU would not be releasing vaccination numbers for football players now or in the immediate future.

BYU has asked all students and employees to “self-report” their COVID-19 vaccine status so it can make “policy decisions” for the upcoming semester, such as “mask requirements,” but has not mandated vaccinations as many schools throughout the state and country have recently.

One of the three quarterbacks in the race to replace Zach Wilson of the New York Jets as starter, redshirt sophomore Jaren Hall, told the Deseret News that the coaching staff has “recommended” that everyone in the program get the vaccine.

“I mean, it is everyone’s choice, right?” said Hall, who took the first snaps when the media-viewing portion of practice opened. “Obviously, we want to play and we want the opportunity to get through a full schedule healthy, and that is our focus — keeping everyone healthy. But at the end of the day, it is everyone’s personal choice.”

Hall then provided a clue as to why the aforementioned assistant coaches got the vaccine as recently as Wednesday.

“In regards to playing football, we know what certain people and certain conferences might request and that is just kinda the decision we make when that time comes,” Hall said.

Hall and the football spokesperson confirmed that different states and opponents could have travel restrictions or COVID-19 protocols that could force the players’ hands.

“Yeah, if you want to look at it from that way (you could),” Hall said. “That’s the bottom line, right? It is easier to do it, but I might not be the right guy to ask. Our trainers and our doctors definitely would.”

But they aren’t talking — at least not publicly.

Regarding the first day of preseason training camp as the Cougars build toward the Sept. 4 opener against Arizona in Las Vegas, Sitake said it went as well as could be expected.

“My general feel from practice, just coming off of it, is I really like how the players worked during the offseason, and they took care of themselves, got themselves ready,” Sitake said. “You can see that they look like they are in shape and they run well, and I kinda like the way that they performed with the (player run practices). Things are a lot cleaner than I have seen. … For the most part, I am really excited about what I saw today.”

Of course, neither Sitake nor Hall nor offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick wanted to say much abut the storyline that will dominate camp: the starting quarterback derby.

Asked if he considers himself the starter, Hall brushed off the question.

“My mindset is to go win against Arizona, whatever happens (in the competition),” he said. “So that’s kind of my mindset right now, just focus on Game 1 and prepare for that.”

Sitake declined to point out which players made marked improvement over the offseason, but did mention that punter Ryan Rehkow got off some “bombs” and the receivers group looked deep and talented with the additions of Utah transfer Samson Nacua and his brother, Washington transfer Puka Nacua.

In the media viewing portion of practice, senior receiver Neil Pau’u made some nice catches and Jacob Conover, the former four-star recruit from Arizona, made some nice throws and directed the offense to the red zone before the drive stalled.