BYU coach hopeful players who tested positive for COVID-19 can return to team before home opener
Sitake is trying to make sure his players’ mental needs are met along with their physical needs after their scheduled game against Army was postponed
PROVO — BYU offensive lineman James Empey on Monday described the 2020 college football season as a “wild ride” and a “roller coaster, going through the ups and downs” that each week seems to bring for the Cougars and all other teams still trying to play a contact sport in the middle of a pandemic.
It makes one wonder what the next three months will bring.
Probably more of the same, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said, before adding: “This thing is impossible to predict.”
The “thing,” of course, is the novel coronavirus that forced the postponement, or possible cancellation, of BYU’s scheduled game at Army this Saturday. Sitake said BYU and Army officials want to reschedule the game, perhaps the weekend of Nov. 28, but that’s an issue for athletic director Tom Holmoe to wrestle with.
Right now, Sitake said he is mostly concerned with the mental health of his players, who have had a lot of curveballs thrown at them the past six months. So far, so good, he said Monday.
“Hopefully we can (practice) by Monday. Some individuals, depending on how everybody tests out, will be limited and may not return until then. Even if players are late getting back, we want to make sure they are safe and not at risk for anyone else.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
“I am really pleased with how they handled themselves throughout this whole thing since March when spring ball was cut short,” he said. “I have been really impressed with them.”
There are dozens of unknowns for BYU’s players as they try to practice in groups of 10 to 15 players because they can’t have full-team practices after a small number of players tested positive for COVID-19 last Wednesday and put the wheels in motion for another schedule alteration.
“Honestly, I don’t even know exactly the details on that, but I know the groups have to be significantly smaller, and we have to do things a very specific way,” defensive back Troy Warner said. “It may be tedious, but if it is what we have to do to play football, we are going to do it.”
At least, the Cougars (1-0) have an opponent for which to prepare; barring another cancellation, they will host the Troy Trojans of the red-hot Sun Belt Conference on Sept. 26 in their home opener at LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN).
Troy begins its season Saturday at Middle Tennessee State; Sun Belt teams went 3-0 against Big 12 teams last Saturday in what some are calling the best day in the history of the lower-tier league.
Although nothing this year can be written in stone, the Troy game should kick off a string of six straight weeks of action for the Cougars because they added a home game on Oct. 2 against Louisiana Tech of Conference USA on Monday.
“When disappointing things happen, there are the ups and the downs and you gotta roll with it and figure out what you can do next,” Empey said. “Because you can only control what you can control, and I think the guys are doing a good job of having that kind of mindset and being able to just prepare each week for what is next. And what is next is Troy. We are super excited to play those guys.”
The next big question is whether the players who tested positive, and any of their teammates who were part of the contact tracing numbers, will be able to return to action before the Troy game next week. Sitake isn’t sure if that will happen or not.
“I think the goal is to try and get our players back for that game, and get them back to practice,” he said. “What we are doing this week, and what we have done since we got those positive tests last week is try to provide an environment so we can get those guys back as soon as possible and get the whole team back practicing together.”
Sitake said practices are limited to small groups, and players and coaches can’t switch groups in the middle of a practice. Coaches will use Zoom and other video conferencing methods to install the game plan for Troy. Just another adjustment in a season full of them.
“That’s really hard to do unless you get on the field and practice that (game-plan installation),” he said. “Hopefully we can (practice together) by Monday. Some individuals, depending on how everybody tests out, will be limited and may not return until then. Even if players are late getting back, we want to make sure they are safe and not at risk for anyone else.”
Having garnered a No. 21 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 on Sunday and still reveling in that 55-3 win over Navy on Sep. 7, the Cougars were set up for some big-time exposure on national television (CBS) against an undefeated Army team also drawing national attention.
Now they will just have to “roll with the punches,” Empey said.
“After that initial bummer of hearing about it, everybody was just positive and grateful that we still get to play football,” he said. “We started looking forward to the next game and looking forward to what we need to do to get back to playing football, with whatever guidelines we have been given by sports medicine and the state and everybody trying to keep us healthy and responsible and safe.”