PROVO — Weird, strange and unusual.
Those are some of the words BYU football players and coaches used Tuesday to describe the first official practice of preseason training camp. The workout in helmets and shorts — with everybody wearing cloth masks — was held at the outdoor practice facility amid a global pandemic and the uncertainty of the viability of a 2020 college football season.
“This whole offseason has been very unique,” said senior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi on a video teleconference with reporters, who will not be allowed to attend any practices this month. “And today was no different.”
Of course, head coach Kalani Sitake has been tasked with keeping his players motivated and focused even though they aren’t sure who will be their first opponent, let alone if there will be a season at all. BYU has had six games canceled, and the first game on their current schedule isn’t until Oct. 2 against Utah State.
Yet there they were, sweating it out in 90-degree temperatures.
“With all the uncertainty and things that are happening, our only goal is to try to be ready for whatever happens,” Sitake said. “Hopefully we get those opportunities to play this fall, and if we do, we will be ready by then.”
The coach said that’s been his message throughout the summer as high-profile games against Power Five opponents have dropped off one by one: Stay ready and trust BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and his staff to come up with a schedule.
“The unknowns will be known soon,” Sitake hinted.
He said morale remains high, and no players have “opted out” of the season due to coronavirus concerns. Only one scholarship player who was on the spring roster, defensive back Dimitri Gallow, is not on the fall roster released Tuesday.
Adhering to school policy announced in June, Sitake declined to answer how many players have been tested for COVID-19, or how many have tested positive.
“We have done a great job here,” he said. “The administration here has done a great job organizing the screening process, and our sports medicine department and our doctors have done a great job educating our players to understand the importance of social distancing and understand the importance of wearing a mask and stuff like that.”
“It is important that we do our part so we can keep it a low-risk environment in order for us to play football,” Sitake continued. “But when it comes down to the details and the numbers, I don’t have the answers to that.”
Kaufusi said the team is “as united as it’s ever been” and nobody has talked about opting out, as some high-profile players around the country have done.
“Our staff has done a really good job of providing us with the resources we need,” Kaufusi said. “We’ve been through harder things, I am sure. ... We just want to play football.”
- BYU wide receiver Neil Pau’u catches a pass while wearing a mask during the Cougars’ opening day of training camp on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Provo. Jaren Wilkey/BYU
- BYU players run warm-up exercises while wearing masks during the Cougars’ opening day of training camp on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Provo. Jaren Wilkey/BYU
- BYU coach Kalani Sitake gestures while wearing a mask during the Cougars’ opening day of training camp on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Provo. Jaren Wilkey/BYU
- BYU quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava throws a pass while wearing a mask during the Cougars’ opening day of training camp on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Provo. Jaren Wilkey/BYU
The Brighton High product also said BYU’s locker room is as diverse as it has ever been, and players are united in the cause of social justice that has been sweeping the country.
“I wish the nation was more like a locker room,” he said.
Because he’s got a veteran team filled with juniors and seniors and because most players have been on campus conditioning since June 1, Sitake said it felt more like a 10th day than a first.
“We had a few skirmishes, a few fights,” he said. “I think a lot of guys have been frustrated being bottled up, and now to get out there and play football was great. Great competition. … We had a little bit of pushing and shoving, things like that, but nothing too crazy.”
Kaufusi and tight end Matt Bushman, the only other player who spoke to the media Tuesday, both said the uncertainty regarding the schedule is out of their hands so they plowed forward with confidence that it will all work out.
“The biggest thing is to hope for the best,” Bushman said. He called wearing cloth masks under facemarks “really weird,” but said the practice “felt pretty normal, to be honest.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since games against Utah, Michigan State, Minnesota, Arizona State, Stanford and Missouri were wiped off the board, Sitake said he discusses scheduling scenarios with Holmoe on a daily basis.
On Monday, the Big 12 became the final Power Five conference to announce its intentions, joining the SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten in going mostly conference games-only. However, the league that BYU aspires to join some day is allowing for one nonconference game per team, provided that game is played on the Big 12 team’s field.
That could open the door for BYU to play at TCU or Texas Tech, as the Deseret News has previously reported.
“There are so many different variables,” Sitake said. “A lot of it is out of our control. It is not like we can make demands and everything. I have been really pleased with the way Tom has been doing it. … My job is to get the team ready, not to do the schedules and stuff like that. I trust (Tom). We will be ready whenever they ask us to play.”
Even if that means October.