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West Virginia thinking outside the box when it comes to practicing during pandemic

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s a recovery day for the West Virginia football team.

The Mountaineers have conducted split-squad practices since Monday and will resume on-field work today with another split-squad practice.

The guys were not required to arrive at the stadium until late in the morning and will have outdoor virtual meetings, lunch, an outdoor walk through and then a mid-afternoon dinner before being excused for the day.

The plan is to continue split-squad practices into next week in an effort to keep players socially distant and safe.

“This has really been how we’ve been operating since we started the 20-hour rule where you get walk throughs and the six-hour position meetings, six hours of walk throughs and eight hours of conditioning,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said.

The architect of this practice plan is Patrick Johnston, Brown’s director of football operations. Johnston spent a good deal of time surveying other programs and NFL organizations last spring to figure out the best way to safely put 100 football players together for football practices in the fall.

He did so with significant input from WVU team doctor A.J. Monseau and head athletic trainer Vince Blankenship.

“We talked around to see what everybody is doing, and we came to the conclusion the safest route was to go split-squad practices,” Johnston explained.

What that means is two separate groups of approximately 50 players practicing together. The twist is that the practice squads are set up by peer groups — not by depth chart considerations.

“We had to be smart with the way we organized our practice rosters because you can’t do depth charts,” he said. “It’s roommates — who they hang out with — because we’d be foolish to take a group that’s super-tight and not have them hang out together because they aren’t practicing together. We know they are going to be together when they leave here, so we just made it easy on them by putting them in the same group.”

Typically, fall training camps have been more football-driven with the medical people working around the team’s football schedule. With the coronavirus still present around the country, it’s the exact opposite right now.

Football work is being done around the medical people’s suggestions.

“This is 100% medically driven through Dr. Monseau and runs through our head athletic trainer, Vince Blankenship,” Johnston said. “They make all of the decisions. They make the rules for us, and we figure out what we need to get done within those boundaries.”

Johnston said he isn’t aware of another program in college football going to the lengths West Virginia is to try and keep its players safe during a pandemic.

“We didn’t find a lot of people doing the full amount (of split-squad) practices that we are,” Johnston said. “A couple of NFL teams were staying split until coming together in the middle of the day, but we wanted to truly split them, and we were able to make it work based off times.”

Johnston continued, “Really, it’s a pretty good schedule for the guys. It’s not as intense. They get longer break times, which is good for them from a physical standpoint for recovery, but it’s also limiting crossover, giving us time to clean.”

Occasionally, Johnston can be seen out on the field walking around with a backpack spraying disinfectant on footballs, tackling dummies and blocking sleds.

Players are never inside for any extended period of time. When they arrive they eat up on the East concourse where seating is spread out. The athletic training area is also up there as well as the team weight room.

The only time the players go indoors is for the brief time they do film study with their position coaches. Again, masks are worn and the players are separated as much as possible.

“We’ve gone to extreme measures,” Johnston admitted. “I would be interested to see who has moved their entire weight room outside. We do our meetings in the mornings outside virtually with iPads. Half of the players are home and half are here when we do it.

“All of the walkthroughs are outside. With that open air it’s as safe as you can possibly be with the virus,” he added.

Johnston has sort of become the football’s staff’s Dr. Anthony Fauci with all that’s he’s had to learn about the COVID-19 virus.

“I know the protocols,” he said. “I know who is cleaning. I know when everything is being cleaned. I know who has been tested, who they are allowed to be around. I can physically monitor whether live or on camera to see who they are around so we can make this the safest possible environment for them to be in.”

When Brown came to Johnston and asked him to figure out the safest practice plan possible for his players, he basically had to start from scratch.

During the last pandemic the country experienced in 1918, the players were able to fold up their helmets and put them in their back pockets.

“In my job, you figure it out,” Johnston explained. “You can’t say, ‘Coach, that won’t work.’ You get a bunch of heads together and you figure out creative ways to get things done. We’ve got a great space here inside the stadium and the climate right now is nice. If we were back in Troy, Ala., right now I don’t know if we will be able to do this.”

So, how long will the weight room, training room and team dining area remain up on the concourse?

Johnston said that’s still to be determined.

“Obviously, we can’t have a weight room and an outdoor athletic training facility if fans are allowed to come to games,” he noted. “We will probably need about 10 days to get it all inside. That decision, when it comes, we will be ready for it. Just from a climate standpoint, I would say we could keep things up there until mid-October if no fans are allowed in the stadium.”

For the most part, the players have been adhering to the extraordinary safety measures that are in place.

“The biggest thing is making them wear their masks,” Johnston said.

Eventually, the split-squad practice model is going to have to be altered when it’s time to get both groups together for scrimmaging. That’s when depth-chart considerations will have to be made.

“We will look at the NFL model,” Johnston said. “That’s the way we will do it.”

Johnston said the pandemic has taught him to stay where his feet are and not get too far out ahead of himself.

“Bad days have been prevalent right now the way it seems, so when something good happens just take that good and really enjoy it,” he admitted. “I enjoy being around the guys and that was the hardest part from March through May, not seeing our guys.”