CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Week one of training camp amidst COVID-19 is underway for Illinois Football, and head coach Lovie Smith laid out how Illinois has handled its protocols so far.
“Our players will be tested daily and not many can say that. As far as knowing what’s going on with each one of our athletes, we’ll have about as good a chance to know that before we go on the football field as I said, as anyone,” said Smith in a zoom conference on Thursday afternoon.
“No system is foolproof, it’s still by compliance a little bit and you know for us and our players, if you were at practice today you would see all of us in masks. At least one form of masks. With our players, shields on their helmets. We’re practicing social distancing as much as you possibly can. These first two days are non-padded practices so it’s a little bit different. We don’t have all of the answers right now but each day we learn a bit more.”
During this adjustment period, offense and defense are currently practicing on two different fields.
“For us, it’s just another step along the way of this new normal for us and we will adjust,” said Smith.
At some point, the two units will have to join together for practice.
“Eventually though, we’re going to have to practice football,” Smith said the close contact will have to come soon enough, “and that’s just a part of it.”
Regardless of the changes, players are happy to be playing football, and have opted to be there, despite the risks.
“Each one of our players that has chosen to be here today, and just be a part of our football team, is pretty happy with what’s going on right now with what we’re doing. Can we make things better for the players? Absolutely. And I hope we get to that point. But for us right now it was about safety for the players to go back and play the game of football, which we’re doing. And just having the covid protocols in place right now, and that’s what we’re doing,” said Smith.
On Monday, the University of Illinois announced that there were at least 18 football players who tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to workouts in June.
Smith responded to the positive tests, saying, “We feel like Champaign is as safe of a place as you could be right now.”
As of Thursday, Champaign County has a confirmed total of 1,574 cases of COVID-19. Of those, 1,371 of those have recovered, 184 still remain active and 19 people have died.
Smith was asked if he has seen players take COVID safety precautions more seriously since a number of their fellow teammates tested positive.
“When I say this is the safest place for players to be I think that kind of proved it a little bit,” said Smith. “We had more [players] that came in and tested positive , they were bringing it from somewhere else.
“Once we got them here we started putting our protocol in place. I think that takes care of an awful lot. But there is no perfect world though, and that’s what we have to be ready for.”
It’s no secret that the 62-year-old coach is at high-risk for COVID-19, when asked about his personal safety, he said he feels perfectly safe.
“I’m just like everybody else. I have a mask on wherever I go. You see me riding my bike into work, I even have it on then. I’m washing my hands. I’m trying to keep social distance. I’m doing all of those things and to me, that’s all I can do.”
Smith said he remains a ‘glass half-full’ kind of guy, but he also understands that there isn’t a guarantee for the future.
“I realize that first off there’s no given that college football for sure will be played. But right now what they’ve told us is that we could start practice, and that’s what we’re doing. Until someone tells us any different, that’s what we’re going to do.”
And there is no hiding how ready the team is for the start of the season, and the opportunity to showcase itself on a national stage.
“The excitement is there. Knowing who our first opponent is [Ohio State]. And then also just building on last year. We made progress with our program last year and, since I’ve been here, this is our best football team we’re going to put on the field this year.”