COLUMBIA — With three full spring practices under its belt before the coronavirus shutdown, the Missouri football team is luckier than most.
But because of the extended off period during the shutdown and the methodical resumption of voluntary workouts in campus facilities beginning last week, the Tigers don't want any further delays or setbacks, especially considering the rise of COVID-related hospitalizations in several states within the past week and positive tests among football players at schools such as Alabama and Houston.
"What I've advised our football team is to take this as an extreme threat," Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said Wednesday in a video call with reporters. "They need to practice safe social distancing, the way we enter our building. The way we operate in our building is 6 feet of separation and no closer than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes, and if you do, you have to have a mask on."
Missouri has not, and does not, plan to reveal positive tests from athletics to the public. It will follow procedure and report them to the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health & Human Services.
Much of the allure in resuming on-campus voluntary workouts for college coaches and athletes around the country came from the coordinated resources athletic departments could muster for testing, sanitizing and otherwise controlling the environment players have available to use.
Drinkwitz said "to my knowledge," Missouri players did not have to sign a coronavirus-related waiver to return to campus and workouts. Some other major programs, including Ohio State, asked its players to do so.
The thinking, nationally, has been everyone will be safer using campus facilities than gyms in their own communities. But there are challenges in bringing more than 100 individuals from their homes back to the same community, and in making sure they aren't exposed to potential infection off-campus.
Senior running back Larry Rountree III said the team is encouraging younger players to take this seriously.
"Yeah, we talked to them," Rountree said Wednesday. "Again, let's be real, I can tell them not to do something, but at the end of the day, I'm like, 'If you do go somewhere, just wear your mask.' Stay in the house. Like, these young kids, they're not staying in the house. So I mean, if they do, we do preferably want them to social distance and stay in the house. But again, if they do go somewhere, I'll just be like, 'Just wear a mask. You go anywhere, wear a mask.'"
Now that summer has arrived, pool parties have been strongly discouraged, along with close indoor gatherings with large groups. Rountree said he did not think there would be an outbreak among MU athletes because of the job the training staff has done to keep things safe, but it's clearly a concern.
The University of Houston suspended summer activities June 12 "out of an abundance of caution" after six symptomatic athletes in multiple sports tested positive for COVID-19.
The Houston area has also seen an increase in positive test results recently, as have the states of Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Most other U.S. states and territories have seen declines in positive test results or remained steady.
After lifting its stay-at-home order 45 days ago, Missouri has remained almost flat in June with 4.1 positive test results per 100,000 people, according to ProPublica. As of Wednesday, 902 Missourians and 118,206 Americans have died as a result of the coronavirus.
"If we get a player, he's in jeopardy, we can get shut down because of that," Rountree said. "I think Houston just got shut down? Right. And then we're talking about, OK, Houston, they got shut down for I don't know how long, but now they're going to be behind. We're already behind. We didn't have a spring. We don't need to waste any more time. If we do, which is not going to happen, but if somebody was to have it, it would shut everything down, and then we'd be doing nothing more but backtracking and hurting ourselves because, oh, somebody wanted to go to a pool party and jump into a pool."
Rountree said this summer has felt more like high school football to him, when the onus was more on players to show up to the gym and work out. The NCAA mandates a weekly maximum number of hours players are allowed in facilities, but the number has been reduced this summer. In past summers, players would come in for a workout, leave, take a nap, return for conditioning, leave to get food and come back for a walk-through or film study. Some of the time difference is being made up with Zoom meetings, but the summer, at least so far, has been easier.
The NCAA Football Oversight Committee approved a plan Wednesday to allow eight hours of weight training, conditioning and film review per week from July 13-23, and 20 hours per week of "countable athletically related activity" per week from July 24-Aug. 6, including up eight hours per week of weight training and conditioning, up to six hours of walk-throughs with the use of a football and up to six hours per week of meetings. Teams are required to provide two off days per week during the second period.
Drinkwitz said Wednesday he was hopeful live drills could begin Aug. 6.
His installation of a new offensive scheme ground to a halt when spring practices were shuttered, before the coaches started making personnel and depth chart decisions. Returning a pair of backs in Rountree — who rushed for 1,216 yards and 11 touchdowns two years ago and for 829 yards and nine scores last season — and Tyler Badie, who put up two 430-plus yard seasons each of the last two years should help.
"The thing I like about Larry is he's a tough runner," Drinkwitz said. "He's physical, he's got good vision, but he can get you an extra two (yards) even when the offensive line doesn't block for that extra two. And he's got great leadership capabilities, very smart, and is somebody that everybody listens to and respects because of what he's done in this league."
Rountree currently has 2,748 career rushing yards in three seasons at Missouri — sixth in program history behind Brad Smith, Zack Abron, Brock Olivo, Devin West and Henry Josey — on 537 carries, a 5.12 yards per carry average. It would take a monster 1,542-yard season to eclipse Smith's career record of 4,289 rushing yards, but Rountree needs 451 yards to surpass Abron's 3,198 for second all-time.