Illinois footballl begins practice with aggressive COVID testing plan
Illinois football had an interesting reply to the Big Ten's COVID-19 guidelines.
Just this week, the conference announced protocols that require at least two coronavirus tests per week for contact sports.
Illini coach Lovie Smith said his team is being tested seven times a week. Every player, every day.
"My mom (Bozena), she's a nurse. She works ICU with all the COVID patients," said senior offensive lineman Alex Palczewski from Mount Prospect. "I was telling her about the plan yesterday and she was blown away. It was amazing. We do spit testing seven days a week."
On the day of the first official practice for a college football season that may not actually happen, Smith made a bold statement in regard to trying to play through the pandemic.
"We feel like Champaign is about as safe a place as you could be right now, being an athlete," said Smith, who got rid of the long gray beard he sported last season. "Our COVID protocol is about as good as it gets."
Smith said the Illini are wearing masks everywhere off the field and have plastic shields to wear on their football face masks. They are using multiple locker rooms, multiple practice fields and keeping meetings virtual.
"Eventually, though, we're going to have to practice football, with a little bit closer contact," Smith said. "We just have to be disciplined when we leave the building as much as anything, and we trust the guys to do that."
The Big Ten has seen three of its best players opt out of playing this season -- Purdue RB Rondale Moore, Penn State LB Micah Parsons and Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman.
Smith said the Illini had one player opt out, Ra'Von Bonner, a senior running back from Cincinnati.
"I think everyone for the most part is doing a good job taking care of their business," linebacker Jake Hansen said. "I think this is safer than me being at home around family, because they're not being tested every day. I feel plenty safe and I know a lot guys are doing the right thing and staying inside."
This is Smith's fifth year on the job and the Illini have plenty of upperclassmen who have taken their lumps and were building toward this season.
"I want to play," Palczewski said. "The biggest thing is just especially with the O-line, all the people in my class we've been here so long and it's just special.
"Going 2-10, 4-8, that just wasn't fun. We had to go through that as the worst times of our lives, but we put in the work every single day (to build for) this season because it's going to be a real special season."
Illinois will have three four-year starters on the offensive line, including Palczewski, center Doug Kramer (Hinsdale Central) and tackle Vederian Lowe.
"We have one of the best offensive lines coming back in the country," Smith said. "Since I've been here, this is going to be the best football team we've put on the field."
The Illini finished 6-6 last fall and went to a bowl game for the first time since the 2014 season. The surge began with a 24-23 upset of No. 6 Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium.
When the Big Ten announced it's revamped, conference-only schedule on Wednesday, the Illini were given an eye-opening home opener Sept. 3 against Ohio State, which is almost certain to be ranked in the top five in preseason polls.
"That's the best way to start off the season, not to ease into it, but dive straight into the pool," Palczewski said. "Obviously, we have to sacrifice for a few months. But at the end of the season when we're Big Ten champs, it's all going to be worth it."