It may be harsh, it may be strange, it may be uncomfortable. Ultimately, it’s the reality Liam Ryan and his Washington State teammates face as they approach arguably the most obscure college football season since the sport’s inception in 1869.
“I could get COVID next week and somebody else is going to have to step in,” Ryan said Saturday. “So we have to get everybody ready.”
Welcome to college football in 2020.
Ryan, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman who’s projected to start at left tackle this fall, is also the group’s vocal and emotional leader. In this case, “group” isn’t exclusive to his position room. Ryan emerged as one of the team’s offensive leaders last year as a junior, and the voice of WSU’s mulleted, 300-pound tackle is one that will resonate through the entire locker room – offense, defense and special teams – over the next three months.
Especially this year, those in Ryan’s position who have the ability to influence 100 of their peers with their actions and words, will undoubtedly carry a larger burden.
Pullman witnessed a surge of new COVID-19 cases when undergraduate students returned to campus in August. As of Friday, when 27 new cases were reported, Whitman County’s overall case rate had climbed to 1,484. Football players have the benefit of daily testing through Quidel’s rapid antigen testing machines, and will go through that procedure every day for the foreseeable future.
The Cougars conduct COVID-19 tests before daily position and team meetings, and have results back well before they hit the practice field.
“I think the process has been smoother than we thought, or quicker than we thought,” coach Nick Rolovich said Friday. “… Today was very fast. I don’t have a time frame for you, but I know we were talking about, will this whole process take four hours before we get results? The trainers and doctors and the machines, they’re getting to a level where it’s pretty seamless.”
The daily testing is a luxury WSU athletes are afforded, and something others outside of athletics may decry, but the availability of it becomes a moot point if Cougar players don’t take the right precautions when they leave the football operations building.
Across the country, teams have been debilitated by swaths of positive COVID-19 results. Houston, the team WSU would’ve been hosting in Week 2, had five separate games scrapped because of COVID-19 before opening the season earlier this week.
“There’s a lot of students back here and quite frankly, we don’t know what they’re doing outside of football,” Ryan said. “There’s guys above that age who can go out and go do their thing, but as a group if you truly love this game, you’ll sacrifice.”
That’s surely a message coaches have tried to drive home to players in virtual and in-person meetings, but player-to-player accountability seems to be equally valuable, if not more so.
According to Ryan, leaders of various position groups have taken on that challenge.
“I think each leader at the position group knows,” he said. “We kind of all have a group chat and we kind of tell each other. I know Jahad (Woods) is taking care of the linebackers, I’m taking care of the O-linemen and we just take care of each other at the end of the day. We’ve all got each other’s position groups on lock down and we’re just ready to play this season.”
Ryan has kept his routine simple, hunkering down at home with roommates when he’s not on campus for football purposes.
“I kind of stay in my own bubble,” he said. “I go to the facility, I do my thing, I do my test and I won’t be outside. I’ll be in my house and relaxing with my roommates, hanging out with my dog and doing as much as possible, as I can, to stay safe and take protocol for that.”
The daily tests may be slightly inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as missing an entire year of football – something Ryan presumably hasn’t done since he was a youngster in Chino Hills, California.
“They have the right protocols,” Ryan said. “They’re trying to keep us safe, they’re trying to keep us healthy. Whatever it takes. Whether we have to do it multiple times per day, I’m fine with it. Some guys have gotten it and it’s probably not the greatest situation to be in, because I don’t think a lot of people out there realize it’s a real pandemic going on right now.
“We all just want to play football.”
”Chau,” not “Chow”
Rolovich anticipates radio broadcasters and television reporters covering WSU may be saying Chau Smith-Wade’s name on a frequent basis this season, so the coach took media members through an enunciation lesson during Saturday’s media availability.
It started when Rolovich was asked if any young players stood out Saturday, one day after the coach sung the praises of freshman wide receiver Joey Hobert.
Smith-Wade, a defensive back from Chicago who signed in February, was Rolovich’s choice on Saturday. The freshman’s hyphenated last name doesn’t offer any real challenges, but there’s a good chance “Chau” might.
“A guy that jumped off to me was Chau. Chau Smith,” Rolovich said. “And I’m going to tell all of you on here, I promised his mom that no one would call him ‘Chow.’ So don’t call him Chow. You call him Chau (pronounced Shaw). I promised his mom you guys wouldn’t screw that up, so don’t get me in trouble with his mom.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound product of Chicago powerhouse Simeon Academy was an all-league running back last fall and made all-state honorable mention as a defensive back.
“He’s a wonderful young man, lot of the qualities we talked about yesterday (with Hobert),” Rolovich said. “Good athlete, competitive, has shown that he belongs in our secondary. He made an interception today. You could tell the defense was excited for him. It was a real spark for practice and I’m very glad to have him in the family.”
Those who’ve stumbled across photos of WSU’s first two preseason practices may have taken note the team’s quarterbacks are no longer donned in blue practice jerseys.
The “boys in blue,” as they were affectionately nicknamed during the Mike Leach regime, are now the “boys in black.”
Rolovich was quizzed about the signal-caller jersey swap Saturday.
“What color were they last year?” he responded.
“Yeah, because I’m a Giants fan and I don’t like the Dodgers,” said Rolovich, a Bay Area native who played and coached at City College of San Francisco. “I was trying to get black and orange. But yeah, that was the motivation. How about that? And that’s honest. Hum Baby. Go Giants.”
It’s no exaggeration, either. When Hawaii’s quarterbacks dressed for practice under Rolovich, they wore solid orange jerseys with black numbering. The coach didn’t elaborate on why he didn’t bring that color scheme to Pullman, but perhaps it’s too similar to that of a certain Pac-12 North rival.
Adios, Leach Beach?
The sandy torture pit that sits on the far corner of Rogers Field in Pullman may soon be a thing of the past.
Known as “Leach Beach,” the sand pit was occasionally used by WSU’s former coach for conditioning experiments, exercising players in an environment that mitigated impact to the knees and ankles. It was also utilized as a sort of punishment chamber by Leach for players who missed class, arrived late to practice or committed some other rules violation. In those cases, the coach would often “roll” players through the rectangular sand pit.
Rolovich was asked Saturday what the future held for “Leach Beach,” responding tongue in cheek, “We might keep it for the spring, so we can have a beach party.”
In actuality, “no, we’ll probably at some point try to maximize that space with some turf so we can have more space to do some football stuff.”
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