COVID-19 brought plenty of loss to college athletics. From lost regular seasons to lost postseasons to lost Senior Days, the virus quickly shut sports down and negatively affected college programs.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances and consequences brought by the virus, which extend far beyond any athletic field, the Virginia football program is finding silver linings amid the uncertainty.
Those start with daily team meetings.
“They’re working out, and we’re doing film study every single morning,” Virginia co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “This is actually more than what we’ve ever done in the month of May and June. Usually, when players get done with finals we don’t talk to them for six weeks until they come back in mid-June for the summer semester, so we’re getting more communication done with them now than we ever have in the past.”
Poppinga admitted that missing spring practice makes an impact, but the Cavaliers aren’t alone in missing spring practices. Programs across the country missed either all of their spring practices or a portion of their spring practice due to COVID-19.
UVa coaches enjoy the time meeting with players as a team before breaking into position group discussions. Usually, coaches aren’t in contact with players at this time of year.
“The highlight of each day is seeing my team online and having some interaction with them for the first couple hours of every day,” UVa head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Given the stress brought about by COVID-19, the Cavaliers relish the time spent together as a group. Even though it’s not in-person interaction, the team spends time together virtually, discussing football and checking in on each other.
Using Zoom to communicate also has helped UVa in recruiting. The Cavaliers developed virtual recruiting material to share with prospective student-athletes.
The materials appear to work. The Cavaliers have added roughly 10 prospects to its 2021 class as well as a few recruits since the end of March.
“I think the main thing that we’ve taken away from this is that we should’ve been using Zoom a long time ago, honestly,” Poppinga said. “We should’ve been using this technology with kids that maybe have not had the opportunity or would not have the opportunity to come out to Virginia.”
Poppinga says the virtual recruiting material helps players across the country learn more about UVa and the program without ever needing to travel to grounds. Theoretically, the Cavaliers could host virtual visits for West Coast players or recruits with a busy schedule wanting to learn more about UVa while also being stressed for time.
If the recruit likes what he sees virtually, he may then schedule an in-person visit.
Even when some semblance of normalcy returns to the college football landscape, UVa may very well still use Zoom as a part of its recruiting efforts.
Outside of football, COVID-19 also sends UVa’s coaches home. Usually, the staff works within offices on grounds. Instead, they’re working from home and participating in virtual calls.
This gives the staff more time with their respective families. For Mendenhall, that means calf roping at his ranch.
“I’ve been out in my arena roping with my boys every night,” Mendenhall said. “It’s usually about 6:30-8. I’ve had more practice for team roping than I’ve had in my entire life.”
Jason Beck, UVa’s quarterbacks coach, has spent much of his free time hanging out with his three kids and wife, Jaime. Beck says he tries to find a nice balance between work and play with the kids, although his definition of play might vary from his kids’ definition.
“I like to try to get out and work with them a little bit and then do something fun,” Beck said. “So they would not say this is fun, but it’s been fun for me, I try to get them all to go out with me and do a little yard work.”
In addition to yard work, the family plays family soccer and football games. It’s a tough challenge for the kids, as both their parents are accomplished athletes. Jason played quarterback at BYU, and Jaime was an All-American soccer player at the same institution.
“It sounds like today’s going to be football,” Beck said on a Zoom call last Thursday. “There’s already been a few requests to have a family football game. One of the kids is walking around with his bike helmet strapped on because he likes to wear that for the football games.”
Between morning meetings with players, improved recruiting tactics and additional family time, not all of the repercussions of canceled in-person athletic activity turned out to be negative.