When the University of Utah football team walked off the field at the Alamodome following the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 31, if you were told that was the last time the Utes would be in full pads, would you have believed it?
The question was rhetorical and the answer is no, because no one could have predicted a global pandemic, let alone what COVID-19 would do to the sports that are regularly contested in the United States. So, yes, New Year’s Eve against Texas was the last time Utah wore full pads for practice or a game, but that’s about to change.
Under NCAA rules regarding spring practice and fall camp, the first two sessions are allowed to be held with helmets. The third and fourth practices can introduce shoulder pads, while the fifth practice can include full pads and tackling to the ground. In preparing for its Nov. 7 season opener vs. Arizona, Utah will conduct its fifth practice on Wednesday afternoon.
“I don’t know that there’s any more concern on my part this year than any other year,” Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said late last week in regards to the Utes being fully padded for the first time in over nine months. “We’re coming off a little bit longer break than usual, but I have great confidence in the head coach’s plan in terms of how much hitting we’re doing week in and week out, day in and day out over the course of camp. Follow his lead, his direction, but I know one thing. Our guys know what to do. We know how to do it, now we just have to see how physical we can be in terms of executing our schemes that will really start taking place next Wednesday.”
When the topic was broached Monday morning on a Zoom call with Kyle Whittingham, the Utah head coach was quick to point out that while full pads were coming Wednesday, practice with shoulder pads were to be held Monday and Tuesday, which meant some hitting and contact would be allowed before Wednesday.
Still, it’s been a long time since any Ute took contact. Spring practice opened at Utah in early March as the pandemic was threatening the United States. The Utes practiced in helmets on March 2 and 3, then saw some contact with shoulder pads on March 5 before dispersing for a week thanks to spring break on campus. Before they could return to campus, in-person classes and the remainder of spring classes were canceled thanks to the pandemic.
“We’re looking forward to it, because we haven’t seen a bunch of these guys ever in pads,” Whittingham said, noting the amount of newcomers in his program this fall. “We’ve got so many new guys in the program that it’s going to be good to get an early barometer and to gauge what they are physically and that’s something we’ve been looking forward to for three months now.”
Utah student-athletes began streaming back to the Salt Lake City campus on a voluntary basis and other strict medical and testing protocols in mid-June. Football players have been working out since then, but with zero tackling.
This week, specifically Wednesday, will mark another return to some normalcy for the Utes, even if things around them are still not normal.
“For me, it’s been a year since I’ve had pads on, so I think for me, it’s going to be the most real feeling I’ve had in a while, as far as getting back to normal and what football is supposed to feel like,” said graduate transfer Jake Bentley, who hasn’t played in a game since Aug. 31, 2019 because of injury. “That’s full pads, that’s contact, that’s hearing the pads pop.”
Added redshirt sophomore quarterback Cam Rising: “The whole team has been anxious to get out there in pads. We’ve been practicing without helmets, with helmets, but it’s not the same without tackling and getting that contact in. We’re all excited about that.”