Ohio State opened preseason training camp Thursday with strict coronavirus protocols in place and under a cloud of uncertainty about whether the revised 10-game season will even be played at all.
Rules requiring testing, masks, frequent disinfecting of equipment and social distancing — at least as much as is possible with around 120 players on the field — were observed at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center as the Buckeyes gathered for the first of 24 practices leading up to their Sept. 3 opener at Illinois.
With schools already having abandoned their nonconference schedules because of the pandemic, the Big Ten released a schedule — along with a long list of required medical protocols — that includes 10 games per school, evenly split between home and away. Whether there will be any fans in 105,000-seat Ohio Stadium is still an open question.
And there’s still a chance the season will be scrapped, depending upon virus trends and consultations with government officials. That will be determined in the coming weeks. Some smaller conferences have already done away with fall sports.
Coach Ryan Day said he talked to his team about all those issues.
“We don't know what's coming tomorrow," Day said after practice. “Certainly anything's possible. We all know that, but we're really not focused on that."
The Buckeyes began working toward whatever comes next after being confined to their homes for a quarantine and then having summer workouts in Columbus disrupted by some positive coronavirus tests, although the school won’t say how many there were or provide names. Players will be tested twice a week during preseason camp.
“It’s great to see the guys, just be around the team and feel the energy and be able to work out and practice together,” senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper said. “I think that’s doing a huge thing for everybody’s mental health.”
Quarterback Justin Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year after leading Ohio State to a 13-1 record and getting the Buckeyes to within one game of the College Football Playoff final. He’ll start this season as one of the Heisman favorites.
Fields said he hasn't considered opting out of what likely will be his final season before entering the NFL draft in the spring, even with the risk associated with playing this fall.
“I don’t have any concerns about what’s going on here at Ohio State necessarily,” he said. “My only concerns that pop up in my head are what are they doing at other schools? I think one of the biggest concerns going around with the team is, what happens when all of the students come back to campus and students aren’t really worried about it, they’re doing what they usually do if the pandemic wasn’t going on? I think there are a lot of things in this situation that we can’t control.”
Along with Fields and Cooper, the team this week elected as captains linebackers Justin Hilliard and Tuf Borland, cornerback Shaun Wade and offensive linemen Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers.
Hilliard said it must be impressed upon all players that the way they behave and follow protocols could mean the difference between whether the season is played or not.
“That’s a new addition, you know responsibility that we as leaders have to keep track of,” he said. “I think it’s important, especially now, as students will start coming back to let people know that we can’t have that normal lifestyle.
“Especially some of the younger guys, it’s not fair to them because they just got to college,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for them to be locked away but they have to understand — we have to help them understand and hold them accountable — that we can’t live that same lifestyle we usually do in order to have a safe season. So it’s going to be a challenge.”