With no wiggle room, UM taking 'pain in the butt' protocols seriously
With an eight-game Big Ten regular season, there’s little room for error and slipups. That goes for the games, but also for the adherence to COVID-19 protocols and keeping the players and coaches safe.
Michigan opens on the road Saturday night at Minnesota, and which players will be available to play could change as late as game day because of rapid testing for the coronavirus. Since Sept. 30, shortly after the Big Ten reinstated the shortened fall season once the tests became available in abundance, the players have undergone daily antigen testing.
If two tests confirm a positive result, the player must sit out 21 days and then be cleared by a cardiologist before resuming playing.
This will be the first game of an eight-game schedule plus a seeded crossover matchup to conclude the season the week of the Big Ten championship game. A 10-game conference-only schedule was released in August, only to be nullified within a week because of lingering health and safety concerns.
The Big Ten reinstated the season last month.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was reticent to name starters this week because test results Friday and Saturday could change things. Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said Monday he knows how many of his players are COVID affected for this game. Harbaugh said earlier this week there were no issues with his travel roster.
Still, this is not a one-game issue, and while Michigan players and coaches have prided themselves for being sticklers to protocol, wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands, it’s a daily concern for the coaches. Michigan non-athletes were given a two-week stay-home order this week from the county.
“I’m not nervous about the game, I’m nervous about the COVID thing,” defensive-line coach Shaun Nua said. “Want to make sure that thing is fricking not getting to us.”
Linebacker Josh Ross said the daily testing is second nature now. The players receive a swab test each morning and get the result about 15 minutes later.
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“It’s definitely nerve-racking a little bit because of the standpoint of when we test the day before the game, somebody could get a false positive,” Ross said. “Who knows how that’s going to happen? It’s really nothing they can do when we test the day before and the day of when somebody has a false positive, so that’s kinda nerve-racking a little bit.”
Ross, like many of his teammates, said he limits where he goes each day, keeping a tight routine that includes attending classes, going to Schembechler Hall for football meetings and practice, and returning home.
“Chilling,” Ross said, laughing, when asked what he does beyond school and football. “Staying out the way. That’s all I can do.”
Offensive-line coach Ed Warinner believes in doing more. With a position group that starts five players who don’t typically rotate in a game, he’s particularly cognizant of what a COVID outbreak could do to his position.
“Those guys do operate in proximity in practice,” Warinner said. “What I’ve done non-practice is split them up so between the first team and the second team, and they’re not all in the same room. There’s five of them between the first and second unit in one unit and five between the first and second unit in the other room. So if one room for some reason got COVID and declared that room couldn’t play for three weeks, the other room I still think could win the game because there’s at least two or three starters in each room and then the next best player, so we have it all matched up. Hopefully that will never come to be the case.”
Leading up to game week, Warinner rotated his players having them all work with the first string and second string, so if a second-string player suddenly has to play, he’s not completely unfamiliar.
It doesn’t end there. The players use disinfectant wipes to clean everything before the meeting, they social distance during the meeting, then wipe everything down again before they leave.
“I make them wear their mask in practice, they wear shields on their face mask for spray,” Warinner said. “I’m a pain in the butt about it. I only let three guys go to water at a time, so they’re not all over at the water at the same time. We’re trying to preserve our chances of playing with a full deck every week.”
Normally, teams play their nonconference games to prepare for the Big Ten schedule, and there is a weekend or two off during the course of the entire 12-game schedule. Now, the Big Ten will play nine games in nine weeks.
There is no wiggle room. Sure, Michigan is opening against a cross-over opponent, but the players feel the urgency to start strong and not let up.
“You get right into it the first game and you have a great opponent and it’s a Big Ten opponent,” said Carlo Kemp, a senior defensive tackle and captain. “We’ve never had that experience before. You have the first two, three games of nonconference play, you can build up and work into and kind of figure out what you’ve got, what works, what doesn’t work and apply all those things once you get into the Big Ten.
“But now, every game, every play, every rep in practice is more important. We look at Big Ten games very crucially because Big Ten games are worth two to us. You win one, you move up, and the other team goes down. That’s why it’s so important to win these Big Ten games. Just thinking about going into this game, everyone on the team has realized just how important and how crucial it is come Saturday to execute at the highest level because every game is worth two. You want to win one and move someone down. You don’t want to be the team that loses one and goes down at the same time.”