It has been 224 days since Kansas State’s football team walked off the field in Memphis after a disappointing, yet hopeful loss to Navy.
A lot can happen in 224 days, and Tuesday afternoon K-State football held a press conference on a day that was filled with uncertainty. The biggest thing that head coach Chris Klieman wants is clarity right now as other conferences move to cancel or postpone their fall seasons.
“One of the things that we would like is some clarity to what they do no matter what,” Klieman said.
This uncertainty has the potential to trickle down to the players too.
“It’s been really hard on the guys, all the uncertainty, the mental strain that they have on them. The anxiety of not having a lot of answers, and it’s one of the few times as a football coach where you don’t have a lot of answers to give them,” Klieman said.
Players expressed their urge to return to play amid the uncertainty. Senior quarterback Skylar Thompson’s response was simple.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to playing in the spring or winter, whatever. Just give me a football and let’s go play. That’s all I want to do,” Thompson said.
Sophomore wide receiver Joshua Youngblood also expressed his desire to play.
“We are just going to prepare like we have a game on Sept. 12, and we aren’t going to worry about anything else,” Youngblood said.
Protocols were a significant focus of the press conference, emphasizing the challenges of maintaining social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention recommendations. Klieman talked about the adjustment that the program has had to make.
“The inside stuff is where we have many more complications and adjustments,” Klieman said. “Position meetings are all over the building — we don’t use the smaller position meeting rooms that you would see. We have used the west stadium club, the academic resource center, we have used everything to spread the guys out.”
Senior linebacker Justin Hughes compared his experience being with the team to what professional leagues are testing out — competing in a bubble.
“It’s like our own little bubble,” Hughes said. “We are up here [at the football complex] all the time.”
Hughes is returning to action after missing last season due to injury and is hoping to play out his senior season.
“We are just doing the things that we need to do to see the field,” Hughes said.
K-State Athletics was hit hard in the early stages of the return to campus with 14 football player testing positive for COVID-19, which forced a shutdown of all activity. In all, 15 percent of the 290 people tested in athletics were positive.
Even though it did delay the start of camp, Klieman said it was “a blessing in disguise.” K-State reported no positive cases in the last round of testing before fall camp started and will test every Wednesday.
“The kids who tested positive had mild symptoms or [were] asymptomatic, so I know that we were fortunate there that no one was really sick,” Klieman said.
It also served as a learning period, Klieman said.
“I think they learned that nobody is going to be immune to this. If you are in the wrong situation and don’t protect yourself, you have the potential to get the virus,” Klieman said. “It only takes one.”
Senior defensive back Jonathan Alexander was the first K-State player to opt-out of the season.
“I supported Jonathan — he came in and visited with coach [Van] Malone, and he just didn’t feel comfortable and needed to do some things for himself so he could feel more comfortable and that’s all there really was to it,” Klieman said.
Alexander has a redshirt year, and Klieman expects him to return to the field in 2021.
On the football side, there is a lot of growth that has been seen in the early days of fall camp.
“Offensively Skylar [Thompson] being in the second year in the system, you can tell how much more confident and comfortable he is. I am really pleased with the progress that he has made in the offseason both mentally and physically,” Klieman said.
This week has been the first time that players have been in pads in almost six months, and the adjustment has created some rust in the continuation of play.
“In the past four days, you can tell guys are a little rusty, we haven’t been in pads for eight or nine months,” Thompson said. “I’m trying to get accustomed to having more resistance when I throw.”
The offensive line will be the biggest concern for K-State, due to the lack of practices in 2020. The Wildcats also lost five starters from the 2019 roster.
The fate of the 2020 college football season remains unknown, and even then, this season will be in stark contrast from previous seasons.