A recent rise in active coronavirus cases — Riley County in general and Kansas State’s football program specifically — worries Chris Klieman with a road date against Iowa State on tap Saturday.
“We’re right on the cusp,” Klieman said Monday during the Big 12 coaches teleconference, referring to K-State’s available players. “Hopefully we have a good week this week from a COVID standpoint, because we’re right on the cusp. I couldn’t tell you the exact numbers, but we had more than we would have liked get crossed out last week.”
Klieman said he doesn’t focus on 53; that’s the number of players (counting both scholarship players and walk-ons) a team must have, per Big 12 guidelines, to play. He’s more concerned with the positional thresholds the conference requires. There are minimums for available offensive linemen (seven), interior defensive linemen (four) and quarterbacks (one).
Klieman, in his second year as the Wildcats’ head football coach, said this is the most nervous he’s been about having a game postponed since September. The Wildcats were missing nearly 40 players in their opening-game loss to Arkansas State on Sept. 12. Since then, Klieman noted things had calmed down, with “a pretty good stretch there where we would only lose three or four a week.”
The number of positive tests within the program, however, began to rise again after the team’s loss at West Virginia on Oct. 31.
“We’ve been getting hammered again,” Klieman said. “I think that is unfortunately going to continue across the country, not just at K-State, as we see everything spike.”
Klieman didn’t know exact numbers, but he said “more than half” of the players on the roster have tested positive at least once. Per numbers from the Riley County Health Department on Monday, K-State’s football program has had 78 positive tests, with 12 active. That’s two additional positives for the Wildcats since last week.
“We’ve still got a bunch of guys who have it,” Klieman said. “That really worries you, because for whatever reason — probably the cold weather — the infections are going up again.”
K-State had an open date last week. Ideally, the Wildcats would have used their open-week practices to give inexperienced players more reps. That didn’t happen, as Klieman said nearly 20 of the team’s youngest players were sidelined, either because they were an active case or in quarantine because of contact tracing.
“We were down a good chunk of our freshman class,” he said. “That was unfortunate, so we didn’t get as much developmental work as we would have liked.”
With so many young players unavailable, Klieman said the team’s veterans worked on fine-tuning the passing game, as well as third-down situational drills on offense and defense. They pitted the first-team defense against the first-team offense in red-zone simulations, too.
Starters going against starters in practice, particularly this late in a season, nearly is unheard of.
But Klieman tried to take a rosy outlook.
“Any time we get speed on speed,” he said, “it’s always a positive thing from an experience standpoint.”
That K-State hasn’t had a game canceled or postponed since the Big 12 went to a conference-only-plus one schedule — the usual nine-game round-robin slate along with one non-conference contest — surprised Klieman, especially given the numerous positive cases that decimated its roster against Arkansas State.
Yet he stressed it’s “absolutely” safe to continue playing football despite the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases nationally.
“We have proven that,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are spikes across the country, so I think there are going to be more cancellations, unfortunately. We hope we’re not one of them. But you just never know. It’s not a week-to-week operation. It’s a day- to-day operation. That’s the unfortunate thing: You just don’t know what players you’re going to have on a day-to-day basis.”
All the Wildcats can do, Klieman said, is hope for the best come Friday, when their final tests of the week are administered. The results, ultimately, will determine whether they board buses for Ames, Iowa, or stay in Manhattan this weekend. If the game is postponed, it likely will be made up Dec. 12. The Big 12 already has pushed back the conference championship game to Dec. 19.
Klieman hopes a postponement doesn’t come to pass.
“We’ve got to cross our fingers,” he said, “to have a really good week this week with tests.”