WKU defeats Middle Tennessee 31-26

Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton watches from the sideline during WKU’s 31-26 win over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 30 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

So far, so good for Western Kentucky’s COVID-19 athletic restart plan.

The school began reintroducing athletes to campus June 8, with roughly 65 members of the football team returning to WKU for voluntary workouts, which second-year head coach Tyson Helton has been pleased with after a week and a half.

“It’s been really good. I tell you what, my hat’s off to President (Timothy) Caboni and (athletic director) Todd Stewart. They did a great job planning and having all the protocols in place,” Helton said during a media availability Thursday. “It’s good to see everybody’s following those protocols and doing all the right things.

“Our guys are doing great. I was really pleased (with) the type of shape they came back in. It was almost like the end of the semester when they get that week off or so, and they came back pretty good. We’ve got to get our wind back a little bit. The running’s a little harder on them just because they’ve had a lot of time off, but I like where we are right now, where we’ve started.”

While several major universities around the country have reported positive COVID-19 tests for student-athletes that returned to their respective campuses, Helton says none of WKU’s football players have exhibited symptoms. The school’s restart plan did not include testing for asymptomatic student-athletes, and only those with symptoms would have a test performed, unless the student-athlete requested a test to be administered.

WKU has put preventive measures in place to help student-athletes returning stay healthy. Masks are required and temperature checks are done on those entering athletic facilities. Equipment is cleaned after it is used, and numbers for workout groups are limited to 10 or fewer.

“Surprisingly, it’s actually been very smooth. Just the process they have for us, just the corona protocol they have and all that stuff, it’s been like clockwork – everything’s on time and easy transitions,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Jeremy Darvin said. “It’s really been good for us and it’s also good for us to have the guys back. Everybody is doing their part, but we’re glad to be back for sure.”

There was an excitement with coming back for Helton, who says he spent part of his time during the shutdown raising six chickens – he wasn’t planning on getting that many, but the spring sale where he bought them had a six-chicken purchase minimum – and for the returning players from last year’s 9-4 team that tripled the previous season’s win total with a victory over Western Michigan in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl. The portion of the team on campus includes the “older guys, kind of our two-deep guys,” as well as those that came in the spring and only had a couple of weeks worth of work before shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Helton said.

“You had the COVID-19 and all the things that are going on in our country, and I met with every player individually just to see how are you doing personally, and it was a resounding, ‘Coach, we’re just glad to be back with our brothers, with our team and we need this time to be together,’ “ Helton said. “On a lot of different fronts, I thought it was really important for us to be back and I think the guys are really excited about the summer.

“We’ve had a lot of really good conversations, too, coming out of this that you normally wouldn’t have, just because you’re usually talking about football, but right when we got back nobody had seen each other, so you’re talking about your family, you’re talking about your personal life, you’re talking about football, so it was really cool and it opened up a lot of avenues to get closer as a team.”

Helton, the 2019 Conference USA Coach of the Year, said his players were “highly motivated” in their individual voluntary workouts. He said the focus now is on his players’ normal lifting and running routines, and that players are doing drills by themselves. The team isn’t allowing any competition against each other yet. Helton says those types of activities are still “a couple of weeks away.”

“They’ve really had to take on a lot of that ownership and say, ‘OK, the things we’d normally do with our strength staff and our coaching staff, we’ve got to do that ourselves,’ “ Helton said. “But we’ve all been together now and they know what to do and how to do it and they’ve done a really good job with it.”

WKU is expected to return 16 of its 22 offensive and defensive starters, along with two of its three specialists, from last year’s team. Earlier this week, 12 Hilltoppers were recognized with preseason All-Conference USA honors from Athlon Sports, including four with First team honors – defending C-USA Defensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Malone, punter John Haggerty, offensive lineman Jordan Meredith and tight end Joshua Simon.

Darvin is just one of the several experienced players returning for the Hilltoppers this season, and he says those players returning are trying to help lead the team by easing back into activities after a layoff he says is probably the longest for most of the team since high school.

“No spring ball, no nothing, so everybody was at home working by themselves,” Darvin said, “so they were glad to get out here and suffer with somebody else for a change I guess.”

WKU athletics’ COVID-19 restart plan was one of four student return proposals by the university presented to the public on May 28 to prepare phasing students for a return after the coronavirus pandemic moved all courses online in March. With that came the cancellation of all athletic-related functions. C-USA canceled what remained of its basketball tournaments March 12, and later canceled the remainder of spring sports seasons.

The remainder of the football team is slated to return to campus July 6 – the same day the university plans to bring back its volleyball and women’s soccer teams. The men’s and women’s basketball teams will be brought back to campus July 9 and begin voluntary workouts July 13. Cheerleading, men’s and women’s golf, cross country, track and field, softball, baseball and tennis teams will return to campus in phases until Aug. 22.

Mike Gaddie, WKU’s associate director for sports medicine and athletic training, said in the June 8 edition of WKU’s “Beyond The Hill” podcast the school emphasized education about the coronavirus, and that he had created four informational documents to prepare student-athletes and staff for the return. It’s something Helton said the staff continues to stress, especially when the team is away from the controlled environment of its athletic facilities.

“We’ve got to have a really good month of June. We’re in two weeks right now. Keep our fingers crossed,” Helton said. “Things are going well, but we’ve got to continue to progress and hopefully in another week and a half, two weeks, everybody feels good about where we are and then we onboard everybody else in July.”

The NCAA’s Division I Council approved a six-week practice plan for college football Wednesday that begins in July, transitioning teams from voluntary workouts like those taking place now at WKU into the typical fall camps.

WKU is scheduled to open the season Sept. 3 – a change from the original Sept. 5 date – at 6 p.m. against UT Chattanooga at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

“That was great to see. I think we’ll be in a really great place,” Helton said. “I think it’s pretty much normal summer for us for the most part. The guys are excited about that.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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