By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The University of Virginia football team has gathered on countless Zoom meetings since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports in mid-March. More than three months have passed, however, since the Cavaliers’ players and coaches have interacted in person.
That’s one of the many reasons head coach Bronco Mendenhall is looking forward to July 5, when his players will be allowed to return to Grounds to participate in voluntary workouts.
On Friday morning, the UVA athletics department announced the schedule for the resumption of the football activities in Charlottesville.
“Really, the players allow us to coach, and without that human interaction and the ability to be with them, it’s not nearly as fulfilling,” Mendenhall said. “I’m sure hopeful that they are anxious to see us, but I know from the coaches’ perspective we feel unfulfilled and kind of hollow without them.
“I think winning and success makes the experience even more gratifying, because you can see the whole organization and people happy, but the daily interaction is really the substance and the very best part of my job.”
The team is on “a little bit of a break right now,” said Mendenhall, who’s heading into his fifth season at UVA. But during one of the Cavaliers’ Zoom meetings early this month, he said, “I told the players that it looks like we have approval to come back on July 5, and then testing and physicals and all those things will start July 6.”
“A lot of smiles and head nods,” Mendenhall said. “I think they were more excited that there was an end, or a new beginning, to look forward to, rather than just a holding pattern.”
The players were aware, Menenhall said, that only three ACC teams––UVA, Duke and Wake Forest––had not resumed on-campus workouts. “So I think they were wondering and anxious just to have some clarity as to what our plan would like,” he said.
The Wahoos’ mandatory workouts will begin July 15, and they will include up to eight hours per week of weight training, conditioning, and film receiver. Starting July 26, as many as 20 hours of work will be permitted each week, including walk-through sessions with coaches.
Training camp is scheduled to start Aug. 9. The Cavaliers, who won the ACC’s Coastal Division title in 2019, are slated to open the season Sept. 7 against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
“We’ve waited about as long as we possibly can,” Mendenhall said, if the Hoos are to be ready for the opener.
Mendenhall has gone over the plan in Zoom meetings with several groups, including players’ parents, who know that players at other schools have tested positive for COVID-19 since starting on-campus workouts.
“And so I think there are some parents that are more reluctant than players [about the resumption of football activities at UVA],” Mendenhall said. “To this point, no one has expressed that they’re not coming back, but I have made it really clear that their return is optional and that scholarships won’t be taken [from players who decide not to come back to Grounds this year].
“There won’t be a penalty if they choose not to return under this pandemic. I’m willing to coach and support the decisions they make. But at this point, as we’re talking today, I’ve have had no players that have said they’re not coming back.”
UVA officials have proceeded deliberately since the pandemic struck.
“We’ve garnered every bit of information that’s on the table today and learned from all the best practices of others––and some of the things not to do––at this point,” Mendenhall said. “There’s more to learn, I think we’ll find out as we go, and we’ll adjust the best we can as the other programs are all doing. But I think we’ve done everything possible and applied every bit of knowledge we could to this point.”
The UVA Health System will administer and coordinate testing of student-athletes and staff on Grounds.
In mid-March, the University switched to online classes, and most students finished the spring semester at home. Members of the football team faced additional challenges. Many players had limited access to weights and workout equipment and so had to get creative to stay in shape, with help from director of football development and performance Shawn Griswold and his staff.
“We were able to provide them with training kits, which had a kettlebell and some workout bands, which are like strong elastic bands, and we sent that to all the players, along with some nutritional supplements, to try to have some kind of consistency between players and the programming,” Mendenhall said. “But really Coach Griz and his staff had to design individual workouts for so many players, just based on what they had around home.”
The coaching staff won’t be able to gauge the team’s fitness level until players return to Grounds, but Mendenhall is confident they’ve been diligent about working out.
“Word [at other schools] around the country is most guys are coming back heavier than what they were before they left,” Mendenhall said. “So the running and conditioning part is probably what we’ll see as the biggest area to catch up on. But I think we’ve done the best thing under the circumstances.
“When the players come back, we’ll have basically two full weeks of nothing other than testing and assessment [to determine] where we’re really launching from. It’s going to be slow and methodical and assessment-oriented to begin with, to find out where we actually are launching from.”
The Cavaliers began holding team and position meetings on Zoom in March, and football wasn’t the only topic of discussion. In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, protests about racial inequality have broken out around the United States, and Mendenhall asked team members to share their personal experiences and perspectives on the Zoom calls.
“Our intent will be to have [those discussions] continue,” Mendenhall said. “The issues are too large and have lasted for so, so long, and are relevant to so many families, not only around the United States, but around my team. So what we’re really looking to do is promote sustainable change, starting within the UVA football program.
“We’re looking for initiatives and designing initiatives that will be seasonal. So something in the fall, something in the winter, something in the spring, something in the summer for our program that we’re always doing, that keeps awareness and improvement and enhancement and education happening on the current social issues. And so we’re really looking to embed those things in our program to make it part of our program from this point on.”