When the abnormal college football season kicked off around the country a few weeks ago, it appeared Maryland football would not be taking part due to the Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But last week, the conference unveiled a return-to-play protocol for football, setting the weekend of Oct. 24 as the start date. The decision came one day after Maryland announced football had returned to full-squad workouts following a department-wide suspension of activities due to a coronavirus outbreak among dozens of athletes.
For the first time since mid-March, the Terps had some clarity regarding their future, and they came out to practice with heightened excitement.
“We’re ready to work, and we’re ready to get after it,” defensive back Tahj Capehart said.
That eagerness to compete has shown on the turf. The offense and defense have traded explosive plays, with trash-talk flying through the air.
For wide receiver Brian Cobbs, that banter is a sign of Maryland’s burgeoning chemistry. The extra time off allowed a young Terps squad to build valuable relationships, both on the field through small, informal workouts and through the shared experience of dealing with the stress of a unique situation.
“The back-and-forth [smack talk] is what keeps the energy high,” Cobbs said. “If you don’t have that, it’s a dead kind of feeling out there … It’s really been a team-motivated, self-motivated kind of practice situation.”
Maryland’s season opener is an Oct. 24 matchup against Northwestern. To ensure they have the chance to compete, the Terps must follow all COVID-19 prevention protocols. The Big Ten announced last week that all football players will receive daily, rapid antigen testing beginning by Sept. 30.
Outside of those medical procedures, head coach Mike Locksley and his staff have stressed the importance of “behavior modifications” — wearing a mask, maintaining a proper social distance, limiting interaction with those outside the football program — as actions that are paramount to preventing the spread of the virus.
Though those efforts have mostly worked so far — head team physician Yvette Rooks said last week the football team had one of the lowest COVID-19 positivity rates in the athletics department — the second-year head coach said he knows any reckless off-field action could jeopardize Maryland’s season.
“Being a coach is a lot like being a dad … and it’s an everyday thing for us,” Locksley said. “We’ve been dealing with this since March, and I think our players understand the responsibility that comes along with it, and the thought of not having a season kind of brings some clarity.”
“If we want to play, we have to do the right thing,” Cobbs said.
So, as activities continue to ramp up, Maryland remains mindful of the precautions needed to avoid contracting COVID-19. It is also keenly aware the planned nine-game season could shut down at any time.
For now, those worries are put aside for a few hours each day as the Terps lace up their cleats and step onto the practice field.
“We all have really gained an appreciation for being on the grass,” Locksley said. “It’s the one place you go where you really don’t have time to think about those things, because you have something — the game of football — to use as that great distraction.”