PROVO — Having their remaining spring football practices canceled and the upcoming college football season placed in jeopardy is a small price to pay if BYU’s players and coaches can do their part to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, head football coach Kalani Sitake said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters who cover the program.
“Obviously, we are disappointed in a lot of things, like not being able to compete,” Sitake said. “But I know the spring and winter sports athletes (whose seasons were abruptly ended by the NCAA) are even more disappointed, especially with basketball (and volleyball) not being able to go to their tournaments. But there are some things in this world that are way more important than sports right now. Whatever we can do, we will do.”
Sitake said the Cougars were able to get in six practices before athletic director Tom Holmoe shut down the BYU athletic department and BYU officials eventually put all winter semester classes online. He said about one-third of the football players in the program returned to their homes and “more will transition there” in the next few weeks.
Players are in constant contact with their position coaches, and Sitake said he tries to communicate “with as many players as I can” to keep them abreast of the situation in Provo. The football talk is kept to a minimum, but every player has a “checklist” of items he is supposed to do on a daily basis in regards to workouts and conditioning with the knowledge that most don’t have access to gyms or weightlifting facilities.
“We are trying to promote the idea of taking care of each other and taking care of their families, but also serving others and being mindful of others,” Sitake said.
Personally, he said he’s used the extra time to watch reruns of old games and highlights, play board and card games with family members, and work on his own conditioning.
He said he’s been impressed that his players have “caught the vision” of the gravity of the situation and that none have complained about their lives being disrupted.
“Really not worried about football,” Sitake said. “The sports world will take care of itself. From this point on, we have to focus on today and really focus on what we are trying to accomplish as people more than anything. … There is a high sense of optimism coming from our leaders and coming from our athletic department. I think a lot of our players have taken the mindset that it is an adjustment, and we will get through it as long as we help take care of each other. If we are mindful of it, I think we will be fine.”
Several college football coaches, including former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall of Virginia, have expressed concern that if the isolation measures and quarantining practices continue into the summer they won’t have time to prepare their squads for openers in early September. Sitake said he is not really worried about that.
“Worrying about August in March does us no good,” he said. “So right now with things changing hourly, it is hard for us to project and forecast that much. It is important to focus on the here and now and staying in the present. And if we do our part as people, it will work out and it will all be fine.”
Sitake applauded the NCAA for “being ahead of it” and recognizing that many adjustments will have to be made in terms of scholarship limits, allowing for missed spring football practices to be made up in the summer, and more.
For instance, some decisions will have to be made in regards to missionaries who have returned home early due to the COVID-19 outbreaks around the globe. Sitake said 47 current BYU players are on church missions right now.
How he will handle the early returnees and likely scholarship crunch “is probably more of a case-by-case deal,” he said. “We have asked them for patience and understanding with the situation. Keeping that line of communication open is important to us, and seeing how things are going for them.”
That was basically the theme of Sitake’s comments Tuesday — continue to take it day-by-day, don’t worry about things you can’t control, and stay considerate to those around you.
“It is just another adjustment we will have to make,” he said. “We will work through this. It is nothing that is too hard for us to overcome.”
Sitake addressed a variety of other topics on Tuesday:
• Wrapping up spring camp:
Coaches didn’t know spring camp would end early at the time, but the last few practices the players were in pads and the focus was on physicality, tackling and execution.
“It is a smash-mouth type of game. So the first day we were in pads we had about 75 reps of live play and saw some really great competitiveness from our players,” Sitake said. “Guys weren’t taking cheap shots. They were being really smart. But at the same time it was really physical.”
• Recent personnel decisions:
With recruiting coordinator Alema Fitisemanu stepping down last month, Sitake has promoted support staffers Jasen Ah You and Jack Damuni to greater roles in recruiting. As for naming graduate assistant Harvey Unga the new running backs coach last week, Sitake said: “We knew Harvey was a special coach. … We knew he could transition into a full-time coach well.”
Sitake said the last thing former RBs coach AJ Steward told him when he left for the same job at Arizona was that “Harvey is the right guy” for the job.
• Preparing for a season that might not happen:
Sitake said the focus now is on fundamentals and technique videos for the players. He said that because two-thirds of the starters are back and there was only one staff change, “it is really helpful” and will help a lot when the players and coaches reconvene this summer.
“Right now we feel really good with the amount of guys we have coming back with experience,” he said. “We feel really comfortable with this team we have right now.”
Proud of @AHifo7 and @micahsimon_ for keeping up the grind and not becoming discouraged during this crazy time. When the dust settles, I have no doubt these guys will get a shot and make their mark. Ready for more #CougsInTheNFL— Fesi Sitake (@fsitake) March 24, 2020
• What about the seniors?
Sitake said it’s a priority of Holmoe’s that graduated players who were hoping to show their wares for NFL scouts on Pro Day (which was canceled) get their opportunity to do that. He said the athletic director is working with the NFL and others “to find creative ways for people to see them show what they can do.”
Several former players, such as receivers Aleva Hifo and Micah Simon, have been posting their workout times on social media sites.
“We are lucky we have an athletic director that will do whatever it takes to promote our players and promote our brand,” Sitake said.