Like most teams around the nation, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his program are walking a precarious tightrope while trying to navigate the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
After last Saturday’s opener against Arizona was canceled, the school announced Sunday that this weekend’s game at UCLA is still on — but it’s not a sure thing.
Last Friday, due to positive cases for the virus and contract tracing protocols, the Utes fell below the threshold of 53 available scholarship players.
Whittingham revealed Monday that there were “two positions that were decimated” on his team as a result of a “rash of positive (cases)” on Friday. He also confirmed that staff members also confirmed staff members were among those that tested positive.
What is Whittingham’s level of confidence that Saturday’s game against the Bruins — which was originally scheduled to be played Friday — at the Rose Bowl (8:30 p.m. MST, FOX) will be played?
“We’re trying. We hope to. Every day is different. If we get a few more positives this week, that could knock us out for the game this weekend. It’s a day-to-day thing,” he said. “We are doing our best to be able to play the game. But if we lose many more guys this week, it could be another situation where we’re not able to. We’re taking it day-by-day and seeing what happens.”
The Utes did not practice over the weekend but were scheduled to resume practice Monday.
For now, does Utah have enough healthy and available players to compete this weekend?
“Barely. We’re right on the borderline,” Whittingham said. “We do have extra time to try to prepare some guys that have been getting zero reps because of their status on the depth chart. When it happened last Friday, we were under the threshold as well but there was no practice left to try to get some of the walk-ons up to speed.
“It was an impossible situation. This week, even though we don’t have very many more players, if any, at our disposal than we had last week, at least we have time to try to get some guys trained up as best as we can.”
On Sunday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert ordered a statewide mask mandate beginning Monday as well as halts on extracurricular activities and casual social gatherings among those of different households amid the rising cases of COVID-19 that are filling hospitals.
When Whittingham was asked what he would say to people in the community that don’t take the virus seriously enough, he shared his perspective.
“There’s no doubt it’s out there and it’s affecting thousands and thousands of people,” he said. “We’ve got some players that have become very sick. One was in the hospital. It’s there. I’m not a medical expert. I don’t want to try to expound on something that I don’t really know much about other than it has impacted us.”
The hospital comment understandably raised eyebrows. But later Paul Kirk, Utah associate athletic director for strategic communications, clarified the reference. Whittingham was not talking about a player that had practiced recently with the team.
“One student-athlete who has not been participating with the football program since August recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized,” Kirk said. “He has since been released from the hospital, is at home and is doing much better. Throughout this time, he has been receiving full care from the medical team.”
When Utah announced the cancelation of the Arizona game, Whittingham expressed his desire to put the health of his players first.
“As difficult as this is, there is no question it is the right decision to make. Our student-athletes’ health and well-being is absolutely paramount and we will not put them at risk,” he said in a statement. “Our team has worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we will continue to care for our students-athletes and follow all protocols very thoroughly as we prepare for next week’s game.”
Utah senior defensive lineman Maxs Tupai and his teammates were, of course, disappointed in the news of the Arizona game being canceled.
“I was kind of bummed about how things didn’t work out,” he said. “We put all of this time and effort and preparation into the team we were supposed to play last week, Arizona, and it didn’t work out. Everybody’s pretty bummed about it.”
As for this week’s scheduled game with UCLA, Whittingham said there is “an ongoing discussion” involving the school’s medical staff and county medical representatives both in Salt Lake County and in Southern California to ensure that Utah can comply with required health standards and protocols.
“We’re still working through it,” Whittingham said.
While Utah’s opener was canceled, UCLA fell last Saturday in its opener at Colorado, 48-42.
If this Saturday’s game is played, the Utes will likely take the field with quite a few walk-ons and scout team players.
“Somebody’s got to get the reps,” Whittingham said. “The guys that are getting reps, it’s certainly has been a juggling act every week, every day essentially. ... getting people back from quarantine or the virus itself and you’re losing some people. It’s been tough to keep continuity but the whole country’s having the same issue, I imagine.”