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Maryland football is ‘committed to getting back,’ but timeline for return is unclear

The future of the Maryland football team remains unclear. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

With its season interrupted by a coronavirus outbreak and its staff and roster riddled with positive tests, Maryland’s football team will begin the familiar process of wondering if and when it will be able to resume practices ahead of a scheduled Nov. 28 meeting with Indiana.

The Terrapins attempted to return to practice all week, and even limited time on the field could have allowed the Terrapins to play Michigan State as scheduled Saturday. But as the team continued to test daily for the coronavirus, cases among players and coaches grew, toppling the team’s chances to practice and play.

In the past two weeks, 23 Maryland players and seven staff members, including Coach Michael Locksley, contracted the virus. The Terps had to cancel games against No. 3 Ohio State and then Michigan State. Maryland’s game at No. 9 Indiana is still a week away, but its attempted preparation for the Michigan State game should provide a guide.

As Maryland attempted to return to practice this week, “we had all types of contingency plans,” Locksley said. As long as the team could practice twice — even if those sessions were on the same day, with one in the morning and another in the afternoon — Locksley was optimistic the Terps could play. The program never received the necessary clearance to practice, but that flexible timeline offers encouragement for Maryland’s chances to resume team activities in time for the Indiana game. However, positive tests next week again could derail the program’s return.

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Speaking Thursday during a virtual news conference, Locksley and head team physician Yvette Rooks would not forecast too far ahead regarding the outlook for the Indiana game. Rooks said she’ll continue to assess the team’s testing data and “it’s a day-by-day process.”

The team moved into a hotel Nov. 11 and stayed through Sunday. The number of new cases decreased over the weekend, Rooks said, but the number grew again early this week, which prevented the Terps from returning to practice. A similar uptick in the coming days could hinder Maryland’s ability to start on-field preparation for the Hoosiers.

“We're committed to getting back,” Athletic Director Damon Evans said. “We're committed to doing things to get everything under control so our student-athletes in the sport of football can get back to doing what they love to do, and that's playing this game.”

Other college football teams have dealt with similar outbreaks, which could offer possible road maps for Maryland. Wisconsin, the only other Big Ten program that canceled games because of the coronavirus, missed two matchups while navigating a similar-sized outbreak. After those two cancellations, the Badgers began regular game-week preparation the Monday before their next game against Michigan. At that time, Wisconsin announced the program had zero positive cases on five of the previous six days.

The Terps haven’t practiced since Nov. 10, but Rooks said she was hopeful that if the outbreak didn’t worsen, players could return to “some kind of fitness or exercise training” this weekend.

“Are there some ideal times and numbers that you’d like from a practice standpoint? Sure,” Locksley said. “But we’ve done quite a bit of virtual teaching and learning. For us, I think the big thing is the cardio conditioning of our players, as well as just having not played the game in two weeks.”

Even if Maryland is able to play at Indiana, numerous players will be unavailable because of the Big Ten requirement that athletes wait 21 days after contracting the virus before returning to games.

Nearly a quarter of the Terps’ roster is in that 21-day process. Eight players tested positive for the coronavirus from Nov. 5 to 11. (Maryland played at Penn State on Nov. 7.) Those athletes would be eligible to return between Nov. 26 and Dec. 2, depending on when they tested positive, with the Indiana game scheduled for Nov. 28. An additional 15 players tested positive between Nov. 12 and 18. They can return to play between Dec. 3 and 9. (The game at Michigan is scheduled for Dec. 5.)

Based on these timelines, any athlete who participated in the Penn State game and has since tested positive would not be able to play at Indiana but might be eligible to return for the Michigan game, depending on the date he tested positive. Maryland does not release the names or positions of players who contract the virus, and the school has not provided information more specific than a cumulative total of positive results during these week-long spans.

Maryland, with 15 more players and its coach positive for coronavirus, cancels Michigan State game

The 21-day absence is a minimum, and a player’s return could take longer, based on the results of return-to-play health screenings or conditioning levels. Coaches are only required to isolate for 10 days after positive tests because they don’t need to first go through the same cardiac screening as athletes, so Locksley will be able to return Nov. 27, according to a team spokesman, and would thus be able to coach at Indiana.

“I have confidence that we’re going to get back on the field,” Rooks said. “As we all know, this is a day-to-day operation when dealing with covid. Covid is very tricky and very slippery.”

Early in the week, Locksley FaceTimed with Michigan State Coach Mel Tucker. Locksley said he assured his fellow Big Ten coach, “Look, our goal, once we get the go-ahead from our medical people, is we’re preparing to play.” The Terrapins faced the same situation during their preparation for the Ohio State game. Now Locksley, while leading the team from home, will have to navigate a similar process again.

“Whenever I’m given the go-ahead by Dr. Rooks and the medical people,” Locksley said, “I’ve got to come up with the best possible plan to have the team prepared to go out and compete at a high level.”