Pandemic throwing college football, 2021 prospects into limbo

The continuing uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has prospects wondering what the college football season will look like in 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Will Fries could have been gone. He could be preparing for his rookie season in the NFL right now, albeit facing some of the same football start-up concerns, instead of wondering whether the 2020 college season will be the springboard to the NFL he intended it to be. Penn State's veteran right tackle announced his intention to pass on the draft and return to PSU for a redshirt senior season on Dec. 7, and since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged college football into a chaotic scramble for contingency plans accounting for all sorts of potential compromises to the game.

But Fries isn't looking back with any regret or wishing that he'd turned pro when he had the chance.

He can't.

"There's nothing I can do about it. That's out of my control, so I can't worry about it," Fries said Wednesday on a PSU-arranged videoconference call with reporters. "Everything I can do is just get myself better every day. Work out, study film, do something every day to make myself better, so that whenever that time comes that we do play, I'm ready to go."

Fries is far from alone; every player who will be eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft is left to wonder whether they'll be able to appeal to pro scouts this fall in a balanced and fair way. Most of the country initially responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by shutting down all but essential public activities to prevent the spread of the virus, but in the past few weeks, some states have begun to reopen, while others have continued their shutdowns. If some games are cancelled, some won't be playing as much football as others, depending upon local public health restrictions.

The NFL Supplemental Draft is typically held in July, open only to players whose draft eligibility status has changed since the regular draft, per NFL Operations. But at this point, it does not seem likely to be a vehicle for players who might be reconsidering their decisions to stay in school, with Yahoo Sports reporting last week that the event is not going to be expanded to include such players. Players are typically granted supplemental draft eligibility under unique individual circumstances, and with COVID-19 impacting players across the board, it would seem that making a case for special circumstances would be difficult at best. That said, no official declarations have been made, and, like much of the rest of the world, college programs remain in a state of flux.

For now, most players are working out from home. Those with the advantage of home weight equipment can do far more, while others are relegated to body-weight resistance exercises such as pushups, pull-ups and sit-ups, as prescribed by strength coaches.

However, at least one of the top wide receiver prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft, Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace, is back on campus. The Big 12 Conference allows a limited number of players who are rehabilitating injuries to do so under staff supervision where school facilities can be open. (Oklahoma is also one of the states that has begun lifting restrictions around gathering in public spaces.) Wallace, who tore his ACL in practice last fall, was leading the Big 12 in receiving yards (903) at the time. He's still in recovery, which allowed him to return to OSU to resume his rehab efforts. He said he feels his knee is on schedule for a healthy return, but he lost a few weeks of on-campus rehab when schools closed facilities across the country and went to the online class format to finish the spring semester.

"There's a trail behind the apartments where I was staying, and I'd run that every day," Wallace told

Michal Menet, one of Fries' teammates on the Penn State offensive line, is also a 2021 draft prospect who is daunted by the prospect of the college football season being disrupted, being played in empty stadiums or being shut down entirely.

"We've discussed all the (scenarios), but I'm trying not to think about it as much. (There are) health care professionals and people who do this stuff for a living that are going to be the ones to make the decision whenever it's safest for everybody to get back," Menet said. "Definitely, it would be a little weird playing under those circumstances. There's obviously some concern (about the 2021 draft impact), but that's why every single day I'm making sure I'm working as hard as I can, so I'm prepared for whenever the season is (played)."

Administrators might not want to think about it, either, but they have no choice.

The California State University system, which includes three FBS football programs in the Mountain West Conference -- Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State -- announced this week that its fall classes will primarily be online; California is one of the states that remains largely shut down. And although the Mountain West issued a statement that no firm decisions about athletics have been made, CSU system chancellor Timothy White's announcement came just days after NCAA president Mark Emmert made it clear that student-athletes won't be playing sports where students aren't welcomed back to campuses.

Players are typically off for most of the month of May anyway, the longest stretch on the calendar in which they are used to being on their own. But they lost access to on-campus football facilities when schools opted to finish their spring semesters online in March and April, and with a few exceptions like Wallace, they could be forced to stay away deeper into the summer.

Until then, college football strength coaches are operating under unprecedented conditions.

"I'm not allowed (under NCAA rules) to do anything live (online) with a group for workouts," Arizona State strength coach Joe Connolly told "I can reach out to players via FaceTime and check in with them, and players can send me videos of their lifts, and I can critique technique, but that's it."

At ASU, players left campus in early March for spring break and never returned. Connolly took a roster inventory of which players had weight equipment at home and which didn't, and he found that 60 players -- more than two-thirds of the scholarship roster -- had none. Connolly is hopeful that on-campus training can resume June 1, barring the announcement of further restrictions, but even under the best-case scenario, workouts will be conducted in a much different way. (Arizona, like Oklahoma, is beginning to reopen.)

"There are a ton of things that would be in place. Testing, temperature checks, linear flow through your facility, no food being distributed -- it'd all have to be to-go," Connolly added. "Cleanliness and sanitization protocols … PPE and masks will be required. It's going to be a whole bunch of things even if we do get the OK to start up."

As the NFL assesses how COVID-19 could impact the 2020 football season, it does so acting as one, a singular league with a commissioner at the top. And while it's faced with varying public health recommendations in the 22 states that house NFL clubs, it can proceed with the collective best interest of all 32 teams in mind.

At the college level, things are more complicated.

Individual school presidents will make determinations for their own campuses, based on local public health recommendations, so college football can't engage in a unified plan for return like the NFL can.

"What does it mean if you look at a conference, for example, if a conference has some schools open and some not?" Emmert said Friday via NCAA social media. "You can't run a regular schedule if you've got that scenario."

Emmert is expecting just that.

Decisions about whether to resume when the season is scheduled to begin in late August, per Emmert, would need to be made by June or early July at the latest. Variances in both school and government restrictions figure to stagger the resumption of football-related activity under a spectrum of different models and protocols.

And that's just for the resumption of training and practice; schedules are a moving target all their own.

Alabama is reportedly in discussions with TCU to possibly play one another to open the season on Sept. 5, in the event that local or institutional restrictions in California preclude scheduled games of Alabama-USC and TCU-Cal on that date. USC coach Clay Helton has mentioned the possibility that Pac-12 schools could play a conference-only schedule in 2020, which would eliminate those Sept. 5 games and many others. The California Collegiate Athletic Association, a Division II league of 13 schools that don't play football, on Tuesday announced a cancellation of all fall sports for 2020. A similar decision by an FBS football conference would wreak havoc on schedules in other conferences, as FBS teams typically play three of four non-conference games.

"You just work out any way you can," Wallace said. "And hopefully it will pay off and we'll all be playing again."

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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