Despite a turbulent offseason of postponements, conflict and uncertainty, UB football finally kicked off its season Monday with the team's first practice since March.
After the most chaotic offseason in history, the Bulls are back with hopes of winning the second MAC championship in program history. The COVID pandemic has postponed sports seasons across the country, but Monday’s practice marked UB Athletics' first step toward normalcy.
“It felt great [to practice]. The day before, I felt like a little kid about to play a pee wee football game. It felt amazing being back out there with my teammates, seeing guys run around, running behind the offensive line, just playing football,” junior running back Jaret Patterson said. “I know this team was very excited for the first day, we’re just going to keep getting better each and every day and not take it for granted.”
A sentiment building within the program is not taking anything for granted. Senior defensive end Malcolm Koonce said watching other college teams play for the last month made Monday’s practice that much more satisfying.
“It felt amazing, having all these other conferences start, it was a feeling like you were on punishment watching your friends play outside a window,” Koonce said. “So it was nice to be able to play football again because you don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s taken away from you.”
Head Coach Lance Leipold took great joy in seeing the players back on the field and was thrilled with the energy they brought to practice.
Even though the team has taken safety precautions such as splitting up the locker room, separating players by position groups and making players enter and leave practice in small groups, Monday’s practice still provided the team with the positive jolt of energy it needed.
“To see the energy of [the team] actually going out to do what they love to do and trying to put a team back together so to speak and get ready to play football games, you could definitely feel a vibe,” Leipold said. “We’re waiting for those little bits of normalcy. Whatever the new normal will be as we move forward, but to see us line up and run plays and do things was definitely refreshing.”
While a full sense of normality isn’t present quite yet, a broad sense of normalcy the players have been looking forward to for months was present during Monday’s practice through running plays on the field.
Patterson said “we’ve been through a lot of unknown and uncertainty but it felt like we’re going in the right direction, it definitely felt like some normalcy.”
The team's first practice took place just six days after UB Athletics announced a COVID outbreak that resulted in 25 athletes testing positive, including 19 football players.
The biggest adjustment this season will clearly be the conflicts a global pandemic brings to a contact sport like football, and the players acknowledge that one poor decision can terminate the season.
With new MAC and SUNY COVID prevention guidelines, Patterson and Koonce noted the opportunity to play this season comes with great responsibility, and if UB wants to have a successful season, it’s going to be a team effort on and off the field.
“It’s important, more than ever, we hold each other accountable, we’re doing a lot of things right to take care of the big things which is having everybody available, which is wearing your mask when you’re supposed to, being socially distanced when you're supposed to and it’s gonna pay off, if we could do those little things right we can do things on the field right and it translates,” Patterson said.
Koonce added that if a player tests positive, he and his roommate must sit out due to contact tracing. It’s important that players avoid selfish decisions and maintain a team-first mentality.
He said it’s imperative that players follow guidelines, as it’s not only being a good teammate but a smart individual.
“If we don't follow the protocols our season will end,” Koonce said. “It’s basically just keeping our standard of being the best possible person you can be in the situation.”
With the multiple positive cases the team is already facing, Coach Leipold has already had to experiment with his team’s depth. Leipold acknowledged they’re not a full team at the moment, and it’s crucial that every player remains ready for their name to be called.
“Developing depth is going to be very important based on who may be available and it's going to be all hands on deck and as we continue to structure our practices, we’re going to try to find ways to make sure that, whether it be the most seasoned veteran our program or the or the newest guy to join us is going to be ready have called upon,” Leipold said.
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.