The Nevada football team's first practice of the 2020 season Friday was actually two practices.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wolf Pack split its team into two groups to limit numbers on the field, an approach the will be used moving forward as the team prepares for what it hopes will be a full 2020 season. On Friday, Nevada had a practice with its first and third strings starting around 7 a.m. before having a practice for its second and fourth strings starting at 9 a.m.
While that means double the work for fourth-year head coach Jay Norvell and his staff, Norvell didn't mind. He just wanted to be back on the field even with uncertainty looming over when his team will actually play its first game. The season opener against UC Davis is scheduled for Aug. 29, but non-conference schedules across the nation have been canceled.
“We do not have a long-term vision," Norvell said on a Zoom press conference with local reporters Friday. "We do not have a crystal ball. We're just taking this one day at a time and one week at a time, and we've had a really good couple weeks the last couple of weeks. They kind of ramped us up to get to the point we're at today. We're scheduled to play Aug. 29, and that game is intact, so that allows us to go to training camp today. We were one of the first teams in the country to go to camp, and we had tremendous practices this morning."
Norvell said working with two groups of players, which is allowed in training camp with no maximum number of hours coaches can work with players, is something he enjoys because his players get more individual reps. That should increase their development, which is essential after COVID-19 canceled Nevada's 15 allowable spring practices.
"It really allows us to detail out and give all of our players reps," Norvell said. "We can focus on our first unit and give them a ton of reps. And then we can really concentrate and teach our twos and our fours how to play. In this season, there's a lot of unknown. More than any other season, it's important to teach our backup players how to play and get depth for our backup players. That went very well today."
In addition to smaller practice groups, Nevada had some other precautionary measures in place. Players had extended facemasks on their helmets and most wore masks around their neck. Media and local coaches won't be allowed at practice, unlike previous seasons, and players are advised against standing with each other on the sidelines when not practicing. Coaches were given sticks that extend four feet to ensure social distancing when coaching players. Nevada's post-practice meetings are all done via Zoom to make contract tracing easier if there is a positive test. And the team's locker room won't be available to players.
"We're not using our locker room with all of our players," Norvell said. "We have a great community here. This community has supported our football program tremendously. We have great friends of the program. I don't mind mentioning them. Rick Reviglio and Lonnie Fixel, two great people in our community, have helped us put tens in the back. We have two tents and spread our athletes outside to social distance them and get airflow and give them space. We don't have room to keep them indoors. Our kids don't shower here. They come here, put their pads on, go to practice, put their pads in a bag and go home and shower."
While Nevada has not released numbers on their weekly COVID-19 testing, Norvell said the team hasn't had to pause its offseason activities, which started July 1 with voluntary workouts for 20 of the team's players. Every couple of weeks, 20 more players were added before the full team was on campus in mid-July. Nevada has been allowed to do required workouts the last two weeks, and Norvell said that process has gone smoothly. Norvell said the Wolf Pack hasn't had any positive tests in that two-week period.
“I’m not going to throw all the statistics out, but I’m telling you we are well below the state of Nevada as far as positive tests," Norvell said. "Well below. And that’s over two months of testing. As far as nationally and the public eye, there’s this image of athletes being at risk, but these kids are under more stringent protocols than the average person in the community, and because of that the safety of them reflects in these numbers. That’s why I feel strongly about our kids being under our structure because they have to do all of those things to participate.”
General population positive COVID-19 tests have flared up across the country in recent weeks, including in Washoe County, which has seen record numbers. But Norvell said it is worth trying to get in a season this fall rather than waiting until the spring when there could potentially be a vaccine. Norvell said his players are safer in the football environment than outside of it.
"To be honest, everybody is assuming there’s going to be a vaccine, but there’s no guarantee," Norvell said. "I hear some doctors say this is a two-year deal. God forbid. I hope this isn’t the new normal. You watch the science-fiction movies and stuff, but there’s no guarantee that this is going to be over with, so I do think it’s worth trying to play."
Norvell said Nevada has offered players the chance to opt out of the season if they have an underlying condition or don't want to take the risk of contracting COVID-19. No Wolf Pack player has taken that option, according to Norvell.
“The easiest thing is say not to play," Norvell said. "But saying not playing and turning our kids loose to the general public, I don’t think that’s safer. To be honest, I really don’t. In many ways, I think it’s less safe the way the general public is reacting to this whole thing. I’ve been observing our kids the last couple of months, and we’re functioning pretty good right now.”
Norvell said he's confident Nevada will play a 2020 season, he just doesn't know what it will look like. The SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 will play 10-game conference seasons while the ACC will play a 10-game conference season plus one home non-conference game. Neither the Big 12 nor any of the Group of 5 conferences have canceled their non-league slates. But Nevada did lose a $1.5 million game at Arkansas, which plays in the SEC. Norvell said Nevada could replace that contest.
“I think we’ll investigate that," Norvell. "There’s still a lot happening. I’ve been practicing the last four years and then watching film, so who knows what happened in the world the last four hours. It’s hard to keep up. I think that’s a possibility. I think everything is a possibility right now, and nothing’s been ruled out. But I do believe the Group of 5 teams have been waiting to let the dust settle to see what the Power 5s are going to do, and we’ll make a collective decision after that.
"But we’ll look into that, and there’s a chance our conference makes a decision of only playing conference games or a combination of conference games and non-conference. I don’t think that decision has been made yet. I would love to play as many games as we can. That’s my feeling. If we are going to play, I’d like to play as many games as we can. The thing about this is these seniors will never get this year back if we don’t play. You can never make that up.”
Norvell said his players have been apprehensive about this season given its unusual nature, but the return to on-field work has assuaged some concerns. With much uncertainy as Nevada prepares for its season, Norvell had told his team to have a narrowed focus in the coming days.
“We’re not claiming to have all of the answers, but right now we have a football season to prepare for, and that’s what we’re doing," Norvell said. "We’re getting ready for that. We’re really just taking it day by day. We have a pretty good football team, and we’re very excited about it.”
Watch Norvell's full 53-minute interview below.