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For Utah football freshmen, nothing has been normal amidst COVID-19 pandemic

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Utes defensive end Xavier Carlton (44) goes through a drill during a recent practice

Van Fillinger is acutely aware that his initial college experience over the last few months has been anything but normal.

As with any college freshman, Fillinger has dealt with adjustment. An adjustment to being away from home for the first time, an adjustment to dorm life, an adjustment to dining halls, an adjustment to college-level classes.

Now, consider the fact we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means most classes are being held virtually and merely walking around campus requires all kinds of safety measures.

Oh, and Fillinger, a Draper native and former Corner Canyon High School standout, is a defensive end for the University of Utah, so the adjustment to college football needs to be considered, too.

“It’s been weird because we don’t know what it would be like to be a normal college freshman,” Fillinger told reporters on a Zoom call late last week. “We come in here, we’re on quarantine, stuck by ourselves all the time. Since I’ve been up here, it’s been the same routine every day, but I don’t really know what it would be like otherwise, so I can’t really give you an answer. Really, it’s just been football for me. It’s been a routine of school and football, and that’s really it right now.”

Headlined by Clark Phillips III, a small handful of Ute freshman football players enrolled early, arriving in January in time for the spring semester. This was pre-pandemic, so by college football standards, things were normal. They went to classes, they had free rein at the Eccles Football Center, they went through Utah’s offseason program.

Those freshmen were able to go through the first three spring practices in March before the pandemic shut down the remaining 12, not to mention in-person classes for the remainder of the academic year. When the football program reconvened in Salt Lake City over the summer, things looked a lot different.

SEASON OPENER

UTAH VS. ARIZONA

At Rice-Eccles Stadium


When • Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV • ESPNU

By the time student-athletes began flowing back to campus in mid-June on a voluntary basis, there was a strict COVID-19 reentry plan in place, which included a school-mandated daily symptom check and an illness policy.

“Honestly, the first day I got to campus was a little bit awkward,” Xavier Carlton, another freshman defensive end, said last week. “I didn’t know anybody, this is the first time I’ve been away from home. It felt kind of awkward, but once I hit the second or third day, I got used to it, asking people who live in my dorms and teammates who’ve been here since January. They showed me around, showed me the classes, showed me some good routes to take as I made my way around.”

Utah is headed toward some semblance of normalcy with its season opener coming Saturday vs. Arizona (2 p.m., ESPNU), but things are still far from normal for the players.

Strict testing and medical protocols remain in place on campus, specifically the presence of a daily-antigen testing in addition to a weekly PCR test for football and basketball players. All of this is in an effort to keep student-athletes safe, but also to get a season played.

“I’m big on routine and I think when I’m stuck in a routine, I think that’s when I’m probably prospering at my best,” said Fillinger, who cracked the first in-season depth chart and figures to get reps at some point Saturday vs. Arizona. “Right now, basically all we’re doing is football. We wake up, we do COVID testing, we have meetings. We go home, we do school, we come back, we do football. It’s the same thing every day, but I think that’s really pushing me to do better.”

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