Inside college football's plan to return from coronavirus lockdown: What you need to know

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The NCAA's Division I Council on Wednesday approved a six-week practice plan for college football that begins in July and will transition teams from the current voluntary workouts amid the coronavirus pandemic to the typical mandatory meetings and preseason camps to prepare for the 2020 season.

If there is one.

College football is tentatively set to kick off on Aug. 29, and while many of the sport's coaches and decision-makers remain optimistic about an on-time start, athletic departments throughout the country are already dealing with positive coronavirus tests as student-athletes return to campuses this month for voluntary workouts. At Houston last week, activities came to a screeching halt again after six athletes tested positive and were symptomatic.

While athletic officials at every level anticipated there would be positive tests and many schools now have procedures in place to deal with them (including contact tracing), the full scope of their impact on the season might not be realized until the fall.

"My motto has been, 'Predict nothing and prepare for everything,'" Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said. "Anybody who tells you they think they know right now is making it up. But we're going to prepare as if we are because we have a schedule, and if we're going to get there and play games, we've got to be ready to go."

Schools have gone through numerous measures to create thorough plans to keep student-athletes safe, but athletic directors concede there's only so much they can do to protect them once the players leave the facilities. In an effort to curtail the spread, some schools, including Ohio State and Indiana, have asked their players to sign a pledge to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, a document that was met with some criticism and skepticism via social media as liability questions loom.

The NCAA plan, which was finalized last week by the Football Oversight Committee after months of discussion, is the sport's first official concrete timeline during what has otherwise been a period of historic uncertainty. It's a unified plan for what remains a state-by-state reopening, and will allow coaches to interact with their players for the first time since college athletics shut down in mid-March.

"It was a matter of getting everyone to be able to [shake] hands and say this was the best model we could all agree upon as we move forward," said West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, the chair of the FOC. " ... It wasn't something that was put together in a matter of a couple of meetings and thrown out there. There was a lot of discussion and I think we landed in a very good spot."

Here's what you need to know about the plan, and where college football stands on the day the plan was approved:

What's the timeline?

For teams that begin the season on Labor Day weekend, required workouts will begin July 13, followed by an enhanced training schedule that begins July 24, and a normal four-week preseason camp starting Aug. 7.

Schools that open the season on Aug. 29 will begin required workouts July 6.

What's different about this summer schedule?

The biggest change is the addition of two weeks leading up to preseason camp, referred to as "enhanced summer access," that will be dedicated to weight training, conditioning, film review, walk-throughs and meetings.

The players are allowed up to 20 hours of countable athletically related activities per week, including up to one hour each day for a walk-through. The players aren't allowed to wear helmets or pads during the walk-throughs, but they can use a football.

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"It's really just more of an opportunity from an evaluation standpoint in terms of their conditioning, so we have this ramp-up going into preseason," said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "And then secondarily, student-athletes and coaches are anxious to start talking some football, and we thought even from a psychological standpoint it would be very beneficial. The walk-throughs give an opportunity not to just get a visual but actually participate."

Berry said he expects most team or position meetings will remain virtual to avoid the spread of the coronavirus indoors and in confined position group meeting rooms. Teams will be allowed up to one hour per day for meetings.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said these two weeks are the equivalent of spring installation, which many teams missed, so it's not the time to be making depth-chart decisions.

"Those two weeks with a football, there won't be an opportunity to see the skills on display," Kelly said. "You're going to have to get into football-related activities and movement, and for us, that doesn't happen until the 7th of August."

Will there be a college football season?

According to a Washington Post data analysis, 27 states -- including Arizona, Georgia and Texas -- reported a seven-day coronavirus case average higher as of Sunday than their average a week ago. Alabama, Oregon and South Carolina are among the states with the biggest increases, according to the Post. It's also still unclear whether the recent protests against racial injustice will further increase the amount of cases.

Still, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby remained confident that "we'll play football games."

"I think we'll have a football season, but I think we'll have interruptions. I've always thought that," he told ESPN on Monday. "We have to first and foremost safeguard our student-athletes and our students on campus. There will likely be some campuses where there are outbreaks and they can't be managed, and they send everybody home, but I think we'll play football games."

In Alabama, which saw a 92% change in its seven-day average, according to the Post, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he has been "dutifully" wearing a mask when he's in public, even when he leaves his personal office to go to another office or a meeting.

"There's a lot of data," Sankey said. "I think what's important is making sure that we're talking to people who understand the data and what it means."

Sankey said the SEC continues to consider any number of contingency plans, but the current focus remains the same: "preparing to play football as scheduled, and preparing to adjust to the circumstances around the virus."

"Our focus is on preparing to play, and we're going to be fully attentive to the circumstances around the virus," he said. "That means we're going to have our continuing dialogue with our presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, our medical advisory committee so that the people who are on the frontlines of health care can help us understand how to meet the needs that are real in front of us."

What happens if coronavirus cases keep spiking in parts of the country?

Through daily and weekly calls, the sport's top decision-makers are still preparing for a variety of possible changes to the college football calendar -- conversations that might have subsided publicly amid a growing perception that the season will roll on as planned.

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said he's staying "positive and optimistic" but is well aware of the uncertainty, and said there's a "looming decision on what type of season we can still have."

"We're still dealing with a lot of unknowns," he said. "... Does the season start on time as scheduled? Is it still possible for us to face a shortened season? The questions around any number of factors which could develop during the course of a season that would disrupt the schedule in some way. Those are all still questions we're addressing in one form of a contingency plan or another. While certain decisions are made, we'll continue to be optimistic, but certainly realistic, that the possibility for a bumpy road ahead exists regardless of how much we're trying to control it."

In the Pac-12, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir said the conference is still preparing for "every scenario," including a delayed start or an interrupted season.

"We're working through it, but you just don't know what can truly happen until you get there, get a little closer," Muir said. "But we're trying to figure out what possible scenarios could unfold and how we would treat them."

Will there be fans in the stands?

Clemson is preparing for it.

"At this point, on June 15, we're moving down the path of having fans for our home games," Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich told ESPN on Monday.

Radakovich said the athletic department is moving toward mobile ticketing to allow Clemson "the best flexibility as far as capacity is concerned." He said Clemson was still in the process of figuring out exactly what the capacity would be.

Riley worried that some coaches might abuse voluntary workouts

Sooners coach Lincoln Riley addresses players starting to return to campuses for voluntary workouts.

"Hopefully within the next three to four weeks, we'll have some various scenarios to talk through with our campus," he said, "but since our first home game isn't until Sept. 12 ... we have a little bit more time than some others do who are hosting in the first week to come up with a final capacity and, given the fact we're using mobile ticketing, be able to get those tickets out to our fan base."

At Stanford, where the stadium capacity is roughly 50,000, Muir said the attendance will be guided by county health regulations.

"Right now I think there will be very few people in the stands," he said. "There could be less than 10,000 by current guidelines, and we have to abide by that."

Sankey said he's monitoring the messaging from state and local governments while also paying attention to how officials in other sports have handled logistics in their returns, such as NASCAR (with limited fans) and the PGA Tour (no fans).

"I don't know that those are parallel efforts," he said, "but there's always something one can learn."

How many positives equal a problem?

The Pac-12 has required each of its schools to test every student-athlete before returning to campus. The SEC has strongly encouraged it but has not made it a requirement. The Big 12 and ACC also have left any testing decisions to each individual campus. While the testing policies vary from league to league, and some schools have been releasing their testing data while others have not, it's clear college football is moving forward in spite of positive tests.

"We are going to have to live with COVID, for sure," said Stacey Higgins, Florida associate athletic director for sports health.

The question is, how many is too many?

At Notre Dame, where football players are moving into an on-campus hotel for the summer, team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler said there's not a certain number that indicates their plan isn't working.

"If we're seeing that the measures we're putting in place are not accomplishing what we want, then that's where you're concerned about we need to rethink this, we need to take a step back," he said. "We're going to have positives. That's to be expected. That being said, we need to do a really good job controlling those. The things in place for that are a really robust contact tracing system to ensure if we have a positive, we're going to move really quickly in coordination with the university to limit those other close contacts so we don't end up with a cluster.

"Obviously, if you end up with high numbers, the plan isn't working. I don't think there's a hard and fast rule on that, but it's looking at what we're doing, and the expectation of how it should perform, which is the goal, and how are we meeting that."

At Florida, where the football locker room remains closed and the entire weight room has been moved to the indoor facility for voluntary workouts, Higgins said a large number of positive tests would require assistance from campus health officials. As of this week, Florida tested 91 athletes and all were negative. One athlete who wasn't part of the university's testing program tested positive and was symptomatic.

"We are fully prepared that we are going to have a positive [test] and isolate that individual and also go through the state department of health tracing program, but if it gets to be too many, that's where those UF Health people will help us work through that process," she said in a recent videoconference with reporters. "I don't have an exact number on that, but we will definitely be utilizing those people as a resource in that area."

What if Houston's stoppage becomes a trend?

Less than a week ago, Houston suspended voluntary workouts for all student-athletes after six symptomatic athletes in various sports tested positive for the coronavirus. In a statement Friday, the UH athletic department said it was suspending the activities "out of an abundance of caution." The school said the symptomatic athletes had been put into isolation and contact tracing procedures were initiated.

"I think we've all learned how to stop," Clemson's Radakovich said. "I'm less concerned of being able to fold the curtain down and say stop. The greater challenge is if we do move ahead and we do have competitions and we do open our stadiums, how do we say go?"

Sankey said each school would have to deal with its circumstances on its campus.

"You've seen the announcements of the testing, the oversight and the actions taken, so that's a guide," he said, declining to speculate on any what-if scenarios.

Lyons said West Virginia reported one positive test over the weekend, but it was asymptomatic. He said the reality of the situation is that the virus is unpredictable.

"You have to manage it," he said. "You work through it. You make sure you have the right protocols and quarantine systems in place to prevent the spread but understanding that this thing, the virus, we can't control the virus. The virus is controlling us. So how do we work around that? That's what we're learning right now. Summertime will give us a little bit of a glimpse of potentially what the season will look like."

Is everyone doing the same thing?

During a season in which state-by-state regulations and varying rates of infections can still create a patchwork return, individual schools have largely been left to make their own choices based on state and local guidelines and governance.

In the Big 12, where voluntary workouts were allowed to begin June 15, Oklahoma opted to wait until July 1. Castiglione said the decision was "significantly influenced" by information from a variety of medical experts, including the availability of tests.

"We just got to the point where we just felt like the risk of bringing student-athletes back in early June far outweighed any potential gains we would have by having them come into our facilities for voluntary workouts," he said. "We are not yet in a place where we can eliminate the risk of contracting the virus. We're talking about risk mitigation, not risk elimination."

By contrast, Louisville's student-athletes returned to campus on June 2 after being asked to quarantine at home for 14 days.

More than 120 student-athletes, coaches and staff were tested, as small groups of athletes representing football, men's and women's basketball, and men's and women's swimming returned a week early to be tested before starting any volunteer physical activity on June 8.

What's next?

The priority to this point has been executing safe return plans for student-athletes and athletic staffs, but eventually administrators will turn the page to how to run practices and team meetings, and what games will look like.

While the Football Oversight Committee was tasked with creating the practice plan, Lyons said "each coach can do what they want to do" once it actually begins.

"I think we can give some guidelines and best practices and thoughts about how the season should be run," Lyons said. "The question is, how do you potentially separate so, if you do have a positive test, your starting quarterback isn't in the same place as your second-string quarterback? How do you work through practices so that, all of a sudden, every one of your quarterbacks aren't out? We're going to have to look at the way we practice and the way we handle things so the contact tracing doesn't impact certain positions and you don't have anybody for that position.

"Are we going to have to practice differently? The answer may be yes. We have to prepare for that. ... Coaches are working together to say, 'How do we make sure we have the proper type of squad to be able to compete if we have an outbreak roll around in September?'"

Athletic administrators also will eventually have to deal with questions around whether to allow pep bands, how to space the cheerleaders, and whether game officials should wear masks.

"We're talking about those things, but it's nothing concrete," Muir said. "Nothing to say, 'OK, definitively this is what we're going to do.' We're not in a position to do that at all."