A day after Collins described some of the measures that the team has instituted to keep players free of COVID-19 infection, such as splitting players into two practice groups and having them execute certain drills without helmets but masked, Thacker and linebackers Jerry Howard and David Curry offered their insights into how different this preseason has been and will be.
As Thacker noted, the focus on keeping players, coaches and staff healthy has started with the head coach. Discussion of how to best keep players safe from infection has been a common thread in daily staff meetings, he said.
“If (Collins) does not see his assistants and his staff and his support staff have the same mindfulness, I guarantee that he will let us know that in those situations,” Thacker said.
From a football perspective, the cost of permitting an infection within the team can be substantial. Ohio State, North Carolina, Kansas State and Michigan State are among a number of FBS teams that have had to temporarily shut down workouts this summer because of virus spread. Earlier this week, Northwestern paused workouts after a single positive COVID-19 test.
“Guys are doing the right things,” said Curry, a captain of the 2019 team. “They’re not going out and walking around, going to bars, doing stuff like that that a lot of other places are doing. We’re doing the right stuff, and we’re taking this very seriously. Because a lot of us want to play football, and we love the game and we want to play.”
There is no guarantee that even doing the right things will prevent the highly contagious virus from infecting a team member and necessitating a suspension of in-person activity. As of July 30, eight Tech athletes had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of voluntary workouts June 15, although the breakdown by sport has not been made public. Still, setting and following protocols goes a long way to minimize risk.
“It’s been working,” Howard said. “I don’t even know if we had any cases. Just the protocols that are in place, they’re working well. I have my son with me, too. We stay on the west side of campus, so I’m definitely following protocols so I can stay healthy and he can stay healthy.”
The change in practice structure has been felt, even after two days. Howard noticed how the safety loops, as Collins called them, have separated players and curtailed the energy that typically ripples through practice.
“We’re so used to being together and firing up with chaos going around,” he said. “But with the safety loops, it’s distant – you don’t get to really go around each other like that. But we’re making the best of it. The players are still trying to keep the energy level high.”
The attention that coaches pay to players to make sure they’re distancing properly and wearing masks figures to have some impact on development. For a team that is trying to push forward after a 3-9 record in Collins’ first season and is facing a formidable schedule, every coaching point counts. Thacker said that his defense has “a million things to improve, as far as statistics. For example, the Jackets finished 101st in FBS last season in rushing yards per attempt (4.79 yards per carry).
“I’m coaching about how far people are apart in between periods more than I am doing football scheme at times,” Thacker said.
At least to the ever-optimistic Thacker, there also have been some gains from the changes. In having two practice groups, primarily divided by class standing, players are accumulating practice repetitions more quickly. The walk-through practices that preceded the start of preseason camp – approved by the NCAA this year to help make up for spring practices and summer workouts that were lost to the pandemic – were also of appreciable benefit to Thacker.
“I think the OTAs, for all the things we’ve gone through, have been an unbelievably huge positive,” Thacker said. “Specifically for new guys, for incomers, for freshmen – what a great way for them to learn without the stressful environment of going full speed and doing a 2 ½-hour grueling practice.”
And, if nothing else, the quarantine made clear his stance on videoconference calls, one that educators everywhere might share.
“More so than ever, I am reconfirmed that kids do not learn best from Zoom calls,” he said.