SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a challenge, albeit a small one in the big picture. The coronavirus pandemic has had college football teams like the Utah Utes communicating through Zoom during the past three months to combat the effects of social distancing and a closed campus.
The players have gone home and won’t return until later this month when facilities open under strict guidelines. In the meantime, they receive online instruction from coaches for an NCAA-mandated eight hours per week.
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said the technology is used in several different ways. Even so, he acknowledged, there’s only so much you can handle without going stir-crazy and wanting to beat up your computer.
“But they’re doing a good job. Our coaches are utilizing every tool necessary and we’re getting our guys as smart as possible,” Scalley said. “And when we’re able to hit the field, it’s going to be getting them in football shape.”
Scalley noted that everyone can run gassers and such right now, but some things can’t be duplicated — like putting 10 pounds of pads on them and hitting one another.
Individually, players haven’t been able to lead by example in the weight room or be an in-person influence with teammates.
“It’s definitely tough just not being there with the guys. There’s only so much you can do when you are away from everybody,” said junior linebacker Devin Lloyd. “So you really have to trust your guys and understand that they need to know that they need to be putting in their work just as much as they would if they were on campus.”
Lloyd explained it’s the job of team leaders like himself to emphasize, and something the coaches are stressing as well.
“There can’t be any kind of steps back,” Lloyd said. “There can’t be any sort of recovery that’s needed when we are up and running because who knows how much time we’ll have before the season comes.”
Utah is scheduled to open the season Sept. 3 at home against BYU.
“I think what I’m trying to do is just maintain communication. It’s difficult, even for leaders. We’re in a position that we’ve never been in before and so we’re all learning,” said junior receiver Britain Covey. “The biggest thing I think that’s going to happen is making sure everybody is still working out and doing their part.”
Things are going well in that regard, Covey continued, and that is exciting. So, too, is the atmosphere around the program.
“It’s all about setting that culture of the first day you get back. Because this is not going to be something where we can ease into it,” Covey said. “This is going to be a hit the ground running mentally and physically. And if you’ve been lazy in these last months, it’s going to be a wake-up call.”
“It’s all about setting that culture of the first day you get back. Because this is not going to be something where we can ease into it. This is going to be a hit the ground running mentally and physically. And if you’ve been lazy in these last months, it’s going to be a wake-up call.” — Britain Covey
Although Covey is understanding of the challenges of forcing people to do things remotely, he is confident that the cream will naturally rise to the top.
“It’s kind of up to them,” Covey said.
Team leaders like Lloyd and Covey, though, carry some added responsibilities in trying to get everyone up to speed.
“Their role is to make sure that they’re reaching out to their teammates — that they’re a voice in those Zoom meetings,” Scalley said. “When we give them opportunities to speak we expect them to speak up. We call on them during those meetings to say what needs to be said. So they’re doing what they can.”
Things are just limited right now, Scalley acknowledged, but it’s the same for everyone else, too.
Utah’s offense returns eight starters, but the vacancies are big — quarterback, running back and left tackle. The return of Covey, who redshirted after four games last season in order to fully recover from a knee injury, will be a boost. He led the Utes in receiving twice (2015, 2018) and is looking forward to what lies ahead in the second season under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
“It’s been interesting to see the dynamic of each offense that I’ve played in and that dynamic is usually what forms the identity of the offense and that dynamic of my offenses for three years has been pretty similar,” Covey said. “The dynamic of this offense is different than anything I’ve ever had. So I’m excited to see how that molds our identity as an offense and the differences it will make and the points of emphasis we’ll have.”
The defense is undergoing a massive facelift in terms of finding new starters. Graduation and early departures to the NFL have left just Lloyd and defensive end Mika Tafua as returnees.
“We definitely have some talented kids but nothing trumps experience,” Scalley said. “So that’s our job and it’s a good obstacle with this pandemic keeping us from being on the field. So much of what we’re doing now is just teaching the game, but we’ll find out how good of coaches we are.”
Lloyd is optimistic about the road ahead for the two-time defending Pac-12 South champions. The Utes won 11 games last season and contended for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
“I personally do believe that we have the ability to get back,” Lloyd said. “Not only get back, but I think we have the potential to be just as good if not better.”
Local players can begin voluntary workouts at the football facility on June 15. The rest of the team will report throughout the month in a staggered schedule.