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10 what-if scenarios as SEC football practice begins with COVID-19 risks

Adam Sparks
USA TODAY Sports
The SEC slogan "It Just Means More." is displayed on the windows of the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel as the first day of SEC Football Media Days begins in Hoover on July 10, 2017. [Tuscaloosa News/Erin Nelson]

Originally Published on: Aug 15, 2020 at 15:16 

NASHVILLE — SEC football practices kick off Monday amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s a whole new ballgame.

The SEC created COVID-19 guidelines after consultation with infectious disease specialists, public health experts, team physicians and university medical representatives in an attempt to adapt and play the 2020 season.

“We recognize that there is no way to eliminate the risk of transmission of the virus at this time,” the SEC guidelines state. “These standards are intended to increase the likelihood of early identification and help mitigate the potential impact of the virus."

Here are just a few of the obstacles that teams could encounter during preseason practice:

1. Will infected players be identified quick enough to isolate?

Potentially, it could be more difficult in preseason than during  the season. SEC guidelines require players and staff to be tested once per week during preseason practice but at least twice weekly during game weeks. So testing results will be less frequent until games begin. If a player shows symptoms while waiting for those results, a team can give an additional rapid diagnostic test in a pinch.

2. Would an infected player wipe out his entire position group?

Maybe for a short time. The SEC guidelines require a quarantine for a person within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before illness onset. Teams could split up position groups enough to protect them from possible infection. Again, a rapid diagnostic test could be utilized to quickly clear players with limited contact and no symptoms.

3. Should players be paired up to avoid widespread infection?

This is a hard one and may depend on circumstances. Two players at the same position working together may minimize contact within a group. However, mixing up matchups between offensive and defensive players may be considered. If a center faces only one nose tackle, their interactions could reach that 15-minute mark for mandatory isolation, or it could contain possible infection to only two players. But if the center faces four different nose tackles, none may reach the 15-minute mark. However, more players could be at risk at a smaller degree.

4. Should celebrations be socially-distanced?

Unfortunately, yes. It will be hard in a game fueled by emotion and energy. But under these circumstances, there’s no good reason for teammates to pile on each other to celebrate a touchdown, big hit or interception during a practice. Players can get creative. Perhaps take notes from Major League Baseball, where players have celebrated home runs with no contact. It will be difficult, but doable. 

5. What players should practice on an island?

Quarterbacks and kickers. Neither requires face-to-face contact with another player at his position. Passing and kicking drills can be spaced out. And, most importantly, both positions have small numbers but essential roles in a game. It’s similar to a catcher, which MLB requires each team to have on its COVID-19 taxi squad, in case of emergency.

6. If a coach is infected, would he send the entire staff into quarantine?

Maybe not. During practice, coaches can be socially distanced from other coaches. Off the field, coaches meet regularly. If one of them becomes infected, being within six feet for much longer than 15 minutes would deem them as high risk and therefore require a 14-day quarantine. However, SEC guidelines state that high-risk status may be avoided if all coaches are wearing masks during close contact. “(This) is an evolving area of research, and this policy may need to be adjusted if new information arises,” the SEC guidelines state.

7. Should scrimmage sessions include starting offense vs. starting defense?

They could, but why? A starting left tackle could infect the team’s best pass rusher. A No. 1 wide receiver could infect the team’s lock-down cornerback, and vice versa. Perhaps a better plan would be to scrimmage starters against second-team players and just the scout team, if available. But if starters are going to face off, it’s better to do it early in the preseason rather than in September, when an infection could alter the lineup in a game.

8. Should offenses go no-huddle to minimize infection, mandatory isolation? 

Yes, as much as possible. Theoretically, quarterbacks can avoid most close contact with wide receivers and some running backs and linemen if they don’t interact in huddles, and vice versa. Obviously, other interactions and drills will count as close contact. But running a no-huddle offense is the best way of social distancing when a full team is on the field.

9. Should coaches cut out the end-of-practice speeches?

Yes, absolutely. Practices from middle school to the NFL often end with players huddled around the coach, who presents a message for the day. It’s a useful method to keep the team on the same page. But during a pandemic, skip it, or at least do it quickly and from a distance. Infections are going to occur, but why risk that on a long-winded coach talking to heavy-breathing players?

10. When an infected player returns to play, is he still at risk?

Apparently, no. A player who previously tested positive for COVID-19 and recovered will not be required to test again for 90 days, which is consistent with Centers for Disease Control guidelines. That means a player testing positive in the preseason could be cleared to play without risk for most, or all, of the remaining season. Games will be played from Sept. 26 to Dec. 5. One exception is that a player showing COVID-19 symptoms during those 90 days may require retesting.