“We have had a number of hard days over the last six months and this is not one of them,” said University of Illinois Athletics Director Josh Whitman at a press conference Wednesday afternoon regarding the Big Ten’s reversal of the Aug. 11 decision to postpone its football season to spring.
When asked what he thought when he heard the Big Ten’s decision to resume football activities ahead of an Oct. 23 season opener, head coach Lovie Smith said, “We have practice today.”
Finally, Illinois — and the rest of the Big Ten — is back, preparing for a real game.
“It’s a little bit different practicing when you know you’re getting ready to play a football game,” Smith said. “You can imagine the excitement the players have right now.”
The Illini will play nine games in nine weeks, finishing the weekend before Christmas. All nine games will be played against the Big Ten, although the schedule has not yet been released.
The team practiced Wednesday under the 20-hour per week allowance from the Big Ten and NCAA. It had been practicing only 12 hours per week since the Big Ten postponed football.
But for the Illini, their responsibilities are two-fold. The players, coaches and staff are not only focused on trying to win football games, but also adhering to the various protocols and medical requirements necessary to pull off a football season during a pandemic.
“There’s still a lot of work for us to do and a lot of responsibility placed on us to do what we’re supposed to do off the football field, which gives us a chance to play,” Smith said. “We cherish that. There’s a lot of excitement but can’t wait to get ready to play some football.”
From Aug. 11 to Sept. 16 there were significant technological advancements in terms of what Illinois learned about COVID-19, Chancellor Robert Jones expressing that the decision to resume the season was data-driven.
The daily approach will include COVID-19 testing and daily antigen testing as well. Should a player test positive, he will miss 21 days at a minimum. That number is a bit higher than the guidelines provided by the CDC because of the Cardiac Registry being put in place.
These advancements will allow the Big Ten to test its players even more thoroughly, including the effects of athletes’ cardiac systems post-COVID-19; one of the main reasons the Big Ten did not want to go through with the season back in August. On top of that, the Big Ten has increased technology in terms of contact tracing.
“Now with this new information, it was very, very clear that a lot of those concerns have been mitigated,” Jones said. “It was the right decision to make and, as I said, we were very, very clear. We weren’t canceling the season, we were postponing it.”
Randy Ballard, Illinois Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine, has spearheaded the research. “To be able to identify someone who is infected before they can possibly infect someone else is huge,” he said.
The Big Ten also has a plan in place to determine the risk for their players based on team and population positivity rates — and what those rates will allow or not allow them to do.
This information was released on Wednesday in a press release.
So with the clearance from all the necessary authorities, Lovie Smith and his guys are ready to play some football.
“We’ll do what we need to do.”