Citadel football players are back on campus, working out in the weight room and running sprints on the new turf at Johnson Hagood Stadium as the Bulldogs begin a "phased-in" return to sports activities.
About 45 cadet-athletes, including players from other sports, are participating in voluntary workouts that began on Monday. College sports, including practices and workouts, were shut down in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"We're taking a little different approach than some of the bigger schools, who have a little more in the way of resources for their teams," said Donnell Boucher, director of strength and conditioning at The Citadel. "They are bringing basically everybody back. But we are going with a more phased-in approach, which I think is a smarter way for us to do it."
Hours of meetings between administration, coaches, sports medicine, strength and conditioning and custodial staff have resulted in protocols that the athletes must follow, from face masks to temperature checks and sanitation measures.
All of those are vitally important to the athletes' health, and for the chances of playing football and other sports in the coming school year, Boucher said.
"At the end of the day, the season is dependent on how well we can navigate the next couple of weeks safely," he said. "This pandemic is not over. If we want to keep training and have a chance to play, we've got to be careful and keep our eye on the ball."
The Citadel is not yet testing all athletes for the coronavirus. That could happen after the NCAA approves a return to required activities for student-athletes, Boucher said. The Division I council has recommended that required team activities can begin on July 13, walk-through practices on July 24 and preseason camp on Aug. 7.
But any athlete who presents with a high temperature or other symptoms will be sent to sports medicine for evaluation on whether a test is needed.
Boucher said incoming athletes must go through a seven-day waiting period after they check in with sports medicine before beginning workouts.
"They have to be in Charleston for seven days, symptom-free, after they get their paperwork done and vitals taken by sports medicine," he said.
Athletes are allowed to work in the weight room in groups of 15; normally during the summer, 45 or 50 players might be in the weight room at one time. Each workout station is sanitized after individual and group workouts, and a private contractor is slated to come through the weight room at midday five days a week.
"They have an electro-static sprayer that blankets every square inch of the facility," Boucher said. "That spray kills everything. You can eat a meal off that floor and it'd be safe."
Boucher and his staff wear masks and gloves when around the athletes, and the athletes must wear masks while they are in the building, except while working out.
Boucher said he's been pleased with the athletes' conditioning, considering that they've been at home without access to gyms for about nine weeks.
"I'm very happy with the way they've come back," he said. "First of all, it's been great just to see their faces again, it's been a breath of fresh air. And it's completely evident that they've been committed to their training and to the plan we gave them to follow while they were at home."
The players also have gotten their first look at the new artificial turf at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Boucher gives it rave reviews from his perspective.
"They love it, and we love it," he said. "It's been a huge feather in everybody's caps. We've been dealing with this (pandemic) situation that nobody is excited about, but to be able to get out there on that brand new turf and get a feel for what it will be like to play on it has got everybody really excited.
"I think's awesome. You get tremendous traction and it's a super, high quality turf. All the stadiums I've been to over the last decade, you can feel that surface when it's really high quality, and that's what you feel when you step on that thing. It will hold up and help us with injuries and with speed, and that's great."
Boucher said that the way Citadel athletes take care of themselves away from campus will be just as important as the athletic department's coronavirus protocols. The state of South Carolina passed the 20,000 mark in total cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 577 new cases and a total of 617 deaths.
"They hear it from me every single day," he said. "We've got to be smart. The steps we've taken to get this underway have been extraordinary.
"From the administration to the coaches to my staff, we've been completely in sync in preparing for this. It's been all hands on deck to get the athletes back, and their health and safety is the only priority."