Staying football sharp through COVID-19: Mendenhall lays out his plan
“Student-athlete and just basically human welfare became paramount,” Mendenhall said Thursday, describing the meeting last week with Virginia athletics director Carla Williams, in which Williams briefed head coaches at the University on COVID-19.
To Mendenhall, “it became really clear, almost instantly, that this was an issue far greater than sport, and far greater than any specific sport, and far greater than acknowledging what season a sport might be in, and the circumstances a sport might be in, and basically is something that can impact the human family. It wasn’t difficult for me to frame it in that regard.”
His next task was to project into an uncertain future, and how to keep his team ready not knowing really anything in terms of what’s next.
Players are all over America, back at home, taking classes online, and checking in with their position coaches, daily.
“We’re adding structure to make this as normal as possible. Just basically wherever they’ve gone to, we’ve created structure for them as if it were here,” Mendenhall said, explaining the virtual team structure he and his staff have built.
In the off-season, coaches are permitted to have contact with players, including virtual meetings, but they’re not permitted to engage in anything considered coaching.
Health, well-being, academics, nutrition, conditioning, housing, social choices, all are fair game, but football X’s and O’s are off-limits.
The structure that Mendenhall has designed, and has his assistants implementing, includes a regimented schedule as close to what players would experience if they were on Grounds – with set wakeup times, nutrition times, class times and conditioning times.
Some programs were deep into their spring practice schedule, but UVA wasn’t set to start until after students had returned from spring break, with a spring game set for April 18, the latest on the spring schedule for ACC schools, along with Virginia Tech.
Only one other ACC program, North Carolina, hadn’t yet gotten its spring season under way, and of those three, Virginia is the only one breaking in a new starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong.
“Spring practice has huge benefits for player development, especially when you have a new quarterback. However, to say that you can’t get a team ready without (spring practice) just isn’t true,” Mendenhall said. “It’s more challenging, it’s more difficult, it will take more work, more innovation, but when you measure that against the circumstances we’re in, it really doesn’t seem that important, quite frankly, in relation to the broader perspective.
“We’ll do what we have to do, what we’re allowed to do, and when we can do it, to make the most of our football program and our team,” said Mendenhall, who, in the vein of leaving no stone unturned, has designed his schedule around the assumption that he won’t be able to have his team back together until the start of fall camp.
“I believe it’s helpful to start with the end in mind. So, we’re acting as if, and we’re making preparations as if, we won’t have spring practice, we possibly won’t have players here for summer school, any session, and possibly we won’t have any opportunity for anything other than fall camp to begin,” Mendenhall said.
He did say that there has been talk among his coaching brethren that if the COVID-19 shutdown is lifted by the early summer, there could be a push to allow for a modified spring practice in June.
But that’s very much a wait-and-see kind of thing, and in the here and now, the focus is on just keeping kids’ heads in the game and on classes.
And on their fitness.
“Now that many gyms have closed, we’re designing programs that require no equipment, and in isolation,” Mendenhall said. “A lot of body weight type of exercises, a lot of things where you’re looking around your house for what you have that weighs anything, and we’re having to design workouts where you have to be the correct distance from someone else, and you don’t have the proper strength and conditioning equipment to use.
“All that in context of possibly preparing for Division I athletics. It’s an amazing challenge, which requires constant innovation and thought, and really communication structures that are built in the whole way are what we’re finding are the most critical piece of this.”
Mendenhall, his mind as much on what’s going on in the world at large as he is on what’s going on with his football team, seems balanced in his perspective on what is to come as far as the fall is concerned.
“The reality is that we’re all capable as professionals to get our teams ready with whatever time frame we have,” Mendenhall said. “I’m sure everyone will work to do the best to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to do that, whenever that is. There’s all kinds of options that could happen.”
Story by Chris Graham