After a short hiatus, the North Carolina football team is back in action.
On July 8, UNC announced it had identified 37 positive COVID-19 tests among players, coaches and Carolina Athletics staff. Following this announcement, the North Carolina football team suspended voluntary workouts before reopening the weight room on July 16.
Enhanced workouts — during which the Tar Heels will be allowed to hold walk-throughs for the first time since March — are slated to begin Friday before fall practice officially begins on Aug. 7.
Head coach Mack Brown held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the team’s resumption of voluntary workouts.
“The contact tracing people are trying to figure out why we had our positives so we can do a better job,” Brown said. “Thank goodness that all of our guys had minor to no symptoms, and they’re doing really well and excited about getting back to work.”
Brown, now entering his second season back in Chapel Hill, said he and his staff have made it clear to players that sitting out the season due to COVID-19-related health concerns will not be met with judgment.
“It’s not only important to tell your players that they don’t have to play if they don’t feel comfortable, it’s important that they believe you,” Brown said. “I’ve learned a lot of things in the last four months just from listening to players, so that’s the most important thing right now for us.”
Brown said the positive tests and ensuing postponement of workouts could be used as a learning experience ahead of the student body’s return.
"It just goes from nothing too fast, and that's why we closed the weight room down," Brown said. "I said, 'Let's take a deep breath here, and let's let our medical people look at this more closely and determine exactly what we're doing and how we're doing it and make sure we take a look at everybody's safety as well.' It's inevitable that you're going to have some (positives), and you've got to learn from them."
Brown said the Tar Heels will wear masks in the weight room, face shields as masks over their helmets, and that coaches will utilize 6-foot sticks to maintain proper social distance from players when enhanced workouts and team walk-throughs begin.
Despite the positive tests continuing to pour in from programs around the country — and cancellations from conferences like the Ivy League and Colonial Athletic Association — Brown said he still believes there will be a college football season.
“I expect us to play college football this fall,” Brown said. “The real answer is that we’ve all got to do what we’re told to do, we’ve all got to fight this virus as a whole in our country and as the virus slows down, we have a better chance to play.”
With decisions from the PAC-12 and Big Ten to move to conference-only schedules, a similar decision from the ACC could be looming. If the ACC moves to a conference-only schedule, the Tar Heels would miss week one and two match ups against Central Florida and Auburn, respectively, a Sept. 19 date against James Madison and a Nov. 7 home game against Connecticut.
James Madison, a member of the CAA, plans to move forward with an independent schedule this fall despite its conference’s decision to cancel the season.
“I think we need a commissioner of college football,” Brown said. “Right now we just seem to be disjointed, and we don't have a single voice together. I would’ve liked to have seen it where more people were talking about when it's safe to come back as a group, how we’re going to run the season, who’s going to play, when are they going to play. That seems to be all over the place right now.”
A variety of options have been proposed for alternatives to conference-only schedules, including the possibility of plus-one and plus-two models — in which teams would keep one or two out-of-conference games and eliminate the rest — and moving the season to the spring, as some states' high school athletic associations have already voted to do. ACC commissioner John Swofford said the conference will make plans for fall sports by the end of July.
Despite the increasing uncertainty, Brown said his focus is still on ensuring the Tar Heels are ready to take the field when the time comes.
“The only thing that is assured is that we’re not assured of anything right now,” Brown said. “People have asked me, ‘What about the spring, could you play in the spring?’ I’m not going there because I’m planning on playing in the fall.”