SIU's first steps onto field are cautious amid COVID-19

SIU's first steps onto field are cautious amid COVID-19
Head coach Nick Hill and his team stepped onto the field together for the first time in months late last week. (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

When Nick Hill joins the Missouri Valley Football Conference's weekly conference call with other head coaches today, he expects a few questions from his colleagues.

Hill, the head coach at Southern Illinois, and his team began fall training camp late last week in advance of its scheduled Aug. 29 season opener at Kansas.

“We’re one of the first teams in the country to start training camp, college or pro,” he said. “I talked to a couple coaches around the country (already) about how things were going.”

During a media conference call Saturday, Hill discussed the numerous precautions his team and coaches are taking amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 150,000 Americans, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and more than 7,500 in Illinois.

“The last six weeks, most of my time and the staff’s time has been about how we meet, how we eat, how we practice, and listening to the doctors and local health officials and meeting with them,” Hill said. “We’re only doing what they’re telling us we’re allowed to do. We have to default to the doctors and public health officials on, ‘Is this safe to do?’”

Hill and his coaches wore face coverings and face shields, while SIU’s players had plastic shields affixed to their helmets during practice.

The team has ordered cloth face coverings, which are expected to arrive by Aug. 10, that affix to the inside of a helmet and cover players’ mouths.

Among other precautions are having players meet in groups of less than 50, meaning the offense and defense are meeting separately. Those meetings are taking place in the Banterra Center, the Salukis’ basketball arena.

The team is using an outdoor locker room under Saluki Stadium to promote proper social distancing protocols and air flow, which can dilute the virus.

SIU’s coaches and staff members no longer meet in their usual conference room. Instead, those meetings have moved to the 120-seat team meeting room, Hill said.

The team, which had its first round of COVID-19 testing on Friday and is awaiting results, is doing 7-on-7 drills but has not done any 11-on-11 work as of yet, according to Hill.

Amid losing spring practices and dealing with months of COVID-19 uncertainty, Hill praised his team for its approach to the difficult situation.

“The guys have been really resilient, going back to when spring ball was cancelled,” he said.

According to Hill, team discussions have involved football – of course – along with latest news about the virus, developments in college athletics, and players’ concerns about safety and health.

“We’re teaching not just football,” he said. “It’s also the logistics of how you come in the building, how we meet. I’ve been proud of our guys as far as where their heads are at.”

Hill said the new gear has caused a few challenges.

On Saturday, the SIU coach said he learned that blowing a whistle while wearing a face shield can be difficult – and loud for the whistler blower. He also said wearing a gaiter-style face covering proved difficult at times while trying to blow a whistle.

Rain during Saturday’s practice led to several additional breaks for everyone to wipe off their shields and a change in the practice schedule.

“We’ve come to find out that 2020 is a lot like that,” he said.

Cody Crider, a sixth-year senior linebacker who has suffered multiple knee injuries in his career, said losing spring practice and access to the SIU weight room forced him to be creative.

Crider told the media he turned the garage at his home in Mayfield, Ky., into a weight room and also used Facetime to connect with trainers while doing rehab for his most recent knee injury.

When it comes to headlines about the pandemic and developments affecting college football, Crider said the team talks regularly about the latest news, and he and other teammates keep track on social media.

“My generation really relies on Twitter, so we’re checking that each day to see what’s going on,” he said.

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