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As coronavirus permeates college football, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich forced to call audibles

UPDATED: Tue., March 24, 2020

Washington State head football coach Nick Rolovich takes a seat before a basketball game between Washington State and Oregon State in Pullman, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (Young Kwak / AP)
Washington State head football coach Nick Rolovich takes a seat before a basketball game between Washington State and Oregon State in Pullman, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (Young Kwak / AP)

PULLMAN – For Nick Rolovich and his Washington State staff, it’s all about the audibles right now.

An example: On Tuesday afternoon, before the first-year coach joined a Zoom conference call with nearly 20 reporters to discuss how his football program is reacting and adjusting to the spread of COVID-19, he played tour guide for a recruiting prospect.

Rolovich walked the high school player through the six-year-old Cougar Football Complex, presumably showing off the ground-level weight room that connects to Rogers practice field on one side and offers a clean, panoramic view of Martin Stadium through five large window panels on the other.

Other stops might have included the third-floor Gray W Legends dining hall, where a personal chef prepares restaurant-quality meals for players throughout the season, or the 160-seat auditorium, lined with leather gray chairs that double as school desks.

For this particular prospect, getting a full tour of the 75,000-square-foot, $61 million facility in Pullman, and Martin Stadium, was as simple as pulling out an iPhone and making a FaceTime call.

“It’s as good as we can provide right now for kind of a virtual tour in substitution for the usual on-campus visits you get this kind of year,” Rolovich said.

It’s anyone’s guess when prospects will be able to visit college campuses again, with a mandatory recruiting dead period in place and travel restrictions potentially next on the list. Showing the future generation of Cougars where they might be playing their college football through the frame of a 6-by-3-inch phone screen is an example of how Rolovich is making the most of his resources.

Granted, it still leaves the Cougars at a disadvantage, he believes.

“Washington State is a place, I think, you’ve got to get on campus and see this place and then feel it,” Rolovich said. “I think it’s a positive for us in recruiting. I think it was trending the right direction … you’ve got to be ready to adjust quickly when this thing opens back up.”

Rolovich would’ve had his first look at the current Cougars in a practice setting Friday, when WSU was originally scheduled to begin spring camp. That start date was pushed back to April 2, although as other Pac-12 schools like Washington and Oregon have canceled their spring scrimmages, it’s reasonable to think the Cougars might not hold their first official practice under their new coach until August.

“I think most people would say it would not be advantageous for a first-year coach,” Rolovich said, on potentially forfeiting spring football. “But it just is what it is. There’s probably some teams that, a lot of their guys have an idea about their offense and defense, and I’ve got to give our team a lot of credit. They’ve come up and they’re eager to get comfortable with the new scheme. So I think how they are wired and how they are built has put us in a better place whenever football returns.”

Until that happens, Rolovich and his assistant coaches will rely on alternate means of communication with players, and find other ways to immerse them in new schemes – on offense and defense.

“Distance football learning” might not necessarily encompass extended FaceTime meetings in which coaches spend hours sketching out Xs and Os. Presenting information in shorter, daily 10- to 15-minute chats might be more feasible.

“There’s plenty of technology to get some done,” Rolovich said. “I’m hesitant to think we can get the whole playbook and the whole schematic identity in over the airwaves. There has to be a point where we can get on the field, and I don’t want to stack knowledge on top of bad foundations. … And with them not being able to make the physical mistakes in practice and get coached on it, I don’t want to just assume we can go through the installs in two weeks on Zoom and feel like we’re ready to go play.”

If the COVID-19 pandemic bleeds into the summer, it could also push back the date when players are scheduled to return to campus. Before practicing 25 times in August, the Cougars take advantage of a summer strength and conditioning program that allows them to get in shape. If the strength program is truncated, it could restrict or limit what the Cougars can do during camp.

“You’d need a good four to six weeks to make sure their bodies are ready for training camp,” Rolovich said. “Us as coaches need to be prepared to adjust knowing that. Maybe we need to take it easy a little bit, maybe we don’t need to scrimmage as much. I don’t know.”

Rolovich’s priority is ensuring every player has adequately adjusted to the online distance learning system the university implemented Monday as students finished spring break. Trying to control the uncontrollable, he figures, is simply wasted energy.

“Right now it’s like, ‘What do you hear, what do you hear?’ ‘Oh, I’m hearing this’ ” he said. “I’d rather go hang out with my family and play Chutes and Ladders than talk about what might happen. I just think when it’s our turn to know what’s going to happen, they’re going to tell us.”

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