The unusual has become the usual for the Kansas State football program for the last six months. Much like life outside the Vanier Family Football Complex, there’s no manual the coaching staff can turn to for advice during a pandemic. For now, players and coaches are adapting as best they can.
Head coach Chris Klieman ran down a list of changes he’s had to institute as the team tries to cope with playing a season without a proven vaccine for the coronavirus in place.
The Wildcats once ate together, watched tape and then went through a series of meetings. All of that is split now: half go to breakfast, half go to film study. Instead of one special teams meeting, there are now two, featuring an “older guy” and “younger guy” partition, Klieman said. In the team theater, white tape is affixed to the chairs players are permitted to sit in, limiting capacity to 55 players at a time. In a fourth-floor room, the Wildcats have another grouping of 30 to 40 players. Position meetings take place all over Vanier’s larger spaces, no longer using the smaller rooms they once preferred.
“We’ve used the West Stadium Club. We’ve used our academic resource center. We’ve used everything to spread the guys out,” Klieman said. “Although they have masks on during the meetings, we keep them socially distanced.”
Similar adjustments have been made since K-State started preseason camp and began practicing at Bill Snyder Family Stadium again.
“We’re using the visitors’ locker room as well as the home locker room, so not everybody is together,” Klieman said. “Unless we use Bramlage (Coliseum), we don’t have team meetings. We’ve only had a couple team meetings. When we lift, we lift in groups of four as opposed to just offense and defense. It’s four groups to lift in. There’s nothing that’s been normal about this camp, and the guys just have to overcome the adversity.”
The coronavirus-induced modifications seemingly never end.
Meals are strictly monitored. In the past, players could serve themselves at a buffet; now, someone serves them while the player makes sure his face is covered. Players once could sit wherever they wanted. That’s a relic of pre-pandemic times, too.
“You go sit with your position (group),” Klieman said. “(Guys might think), ‘Well maybe I want to go sit with a quarterback. I’m an offensive lineman.’ Well, you can’t do that. You have to sit just with the O-linemen. They get tired of each other probably, but we’re trying to do all those things to mitigate the spread and mitigate the virus. So guys are probably getting used to it. It doesn’t make it easy, it’s just kind of our new normal.”
And it will be the “new normal” for the foreseeable future.
Practice normal — somewhat
The closest thing to a sense of normalcy players and coaches have is when they hit the practice field. It’s still 11-on-11. Football drills in 2020 are the same as football drills in 2019. Klieman and his staff brought their double-rep system with them from North Dakota State; that means they already split the team in half.
“So there’s plenty of space because we’ve been on the grass all the time,” Klieman said. “It’s been really, really good. And so we’ve been able to do everything that we had done in the previous year.”
While the structure is the same, nothing else is. Under the guidance of director of sports medicine Matt Thomason and head football equipment manager Al Cerbe, the Wildcats constantly are implementing ways of trying to avoid spreading COVID-19.
(It’s things like), ‘How do you cover your mouth, cover your nose and still be able to be effective as a football player and breathe?’” Klieman said. “We’re continuing to try different masks. We’re continuing to try different face guards. These gaiters that they pull up, the guys have liked. Then they come off the sideline and take their helmet off, get their drink, walk away if you’ve really got to get your breath (and) get away from people, and then when you’re back with your coach, pull your gaiter up and have the conversation.”
It isn’t without issue, however.
“The challenging thing for us as coaches is they can’t see your mouth moving,” Klieman said. “They can’t see your face very much. They can listen to you, but sometimes they don’t understand with your facial expressions if you’re kidding on something or if you’re being serious. But we’ve done a real good job managing it.”
Skylar Thompson agreed, saying “the practice aspect isn’t as different” as the other changes K-State has instituted. Thompson, the Wildcats’ starting quarterback, said he feels the biggest hindrance is something more intangible.
“What makes it hard is I feel like leadership and being a great teammate is a contact sport, a contact thing,” he said. “Loving up on your guys and being a leader, like man, you’ve got to love up on your teammates, and that involves contact, like dapping each other up or hugging each other after a touchdown or getting in each other’s face and celebrating. That stuff is part of the game and stuff that I do all the time, and the biggest difference for me (now is) having to think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that’ beforehand or trying to be aware of those types of things.”
Thompson let his mind wander, pondering how he would enjoy celebrating with center Noah Johnson after a big play.
“Those little, little things that we have to limit and not do and just to have that thought in our head is hard,” he said. “That and the ability to breathe is obviously a challenge, and that’s going to take time for us just getting used to that, but you do catch yourself when air is really stagnant inside your helmet and you can’t lift it up to catch your breath, so that makes things difficult.”
Justin Hughes, another team leader, said in many ways, dealing with wearing the visors and gaiters is a battle of mind over matter.
“Guys wanted to take their masks off so badly (earlier in the preseason), but we held strong, and I feel like we can continue to do that,” Hughes said. “Especially toward the end of the season when it gets cold, guys are going to want to wear their masks. So we’re doing a good job with that. We’re not afraid at all. We want to get to it. Yeah, it’s a struggle breathing, but it’s always a struggle breathing in football. It’s another obstacle.”
The Wildcats certainly don’t lack for reminders.
“We remind them every chance, every opportunity we get,” said Buddy Wyatt, K-State’s defensive ends coach. “We remind them that if we want to have a season this year, you have to follow the procedures that the health department has put into place, that Matt Thomason and his staff have put together, Dr. Goerl — all of them. We have a really good medical staff that has worked really hard to try to put us in the best position to play a game, to play a season. We tell our kids, every time we meet with them, we’ll tell them, ‘Hey, you’ve got to make sure that you’re doing the things that are going allow us to have a season.’ So it’s not a daily (reminder) — it’s every time we meet.”
Assistant head coach/cornerbacks coach Van Malone said constantly discussing safety and health — best practices to avoid contracting and infecting others with the virus — makes it awkward to impart instruction at times — how can a coach get upset at a player with so much on his mind given a pandemic that seems to have no end in sight?
“Sometimes you can lose (sight of) that, but I am excited about the commitment our guys have made to adjusting to all of it, even in a sense of our staff,” he said. “There are coaches who don’t even know how to turn a computer on, and those guys have had to learn to operate and run meetings over Zoom in the last few months. So there’s been adjustments all over. I think as a staff, as players, as a support staff, I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made.”
Those reminders come from players, too. Senior running back Harry Trotter said the upperclassmen have taken it upon themselves to ensure younger players understand the importance of following protocols and guidelines to the letter.
“We can’t have young guys going out to public gatherings, large gatherings,” he said. “Just staying on them about that stuff, helping them to be smart and know which positions not to be in. We can’t really sacrifice anything like that right now.”
Safety during games, travel an open question
Klieman didn’t beat around the bush: He’s not sure exactly how to ensure safety once games begin.
He trusts K-State’s medical professionals. He trusts that every team in the Big 12 will follow protocols as devoutly as the Wildcats. (That’s why athletics director Gene Taylor constantly is on call with fellow conference ADs and commissioner Bob Bowlsby.)
No one will know for sure, however, until kickoff actually arrives.
“We are confident that every Big 12 school is making sure each team, each medical professional at that school is doing everything they can to make sure that we’re sending a healthy, safe football team to a place and returning that same way,” Klieman said. “I don’t pretend to know all of the things about sweat, but what we’ve been told is, if they make sure they have their mask on, they can get into combat with somebody at the line of scrimmage (and) because it’s not for a prolonged period of time, they can be relatively safe. I think we all know, what’s ‘relatively?’ Could they still get something? Absolutely, probably.
“But I’m not a medical doctor. I don’t know those things. We’re just following the guidelines of the people who, this is their livelihoods and this is their profession. I trust those people.”
Klieman acknowledged that traveling for road games is a concern — but not one without a solution for his team. Players will room with the same teammates on the road as they do in Manhattan.
And the Wildcats will do their due diligence before they arrive in another city.
“The meeting rooms would be something (where) we’d send somebody there prior to (the game), make sure the meeting room is big enough that we can socially distance ourselves in that meeting room,” he said. “All things logistically that have to take place before we get on a plane or a bus. Are we going to bus to Iowa State or Oklahoma? I know those are things being talked about.”
Klieman never has lost sight of the fact coaches don’t have it as rough as their players. Once coaches get into a routine, he said, they “can be creatures of habit for the next two or three weeks,” potentially more. With so many shifts to their schedule of various meetings, coaches have learned they have to start budgeting more time into their daily regimen so they can get from place to place.
“We’ve adjusted all of our time,” Klieman said. “So everything has been a little bit different.”