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Frost: Huskers' depth could be tested by COVID-19 protocols, but NU grateful to be playing
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HUSKER FOOTBALL

Frost: Huskers' depth could be tested by COVID-19 protocols, but NU grateful to be playing

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Nebraska vs. Iowa, 11.23

Nebraska coach Scott Frost looks at the video board of a replay during a 2018 game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Nebraska football is back on the practice field, back in pads and fully back in preparation mode as an Oct. 24 season opener against Ohio State comes further into view.

While the Huskers sort out depth chart issues, work through game situations and get used to hitting and tackling for the first time since November, there is also a parallel track to the conversation: Keeping the team healthy during the coronavirus pandemic and trying to do so well enough to not run into major issues with the Big Ten’s testing protocols.

The conference’s daily antigen testing program is up and running at every Big Ten school as of Wednesday, but it provides only a maximum of 170 tests daily. Given that NU’s roster currently stands at 154 and the Huskers have dozens more coaches, managers and trainers, the program was up to more than 200 daily tests on its own before the league took over.

The question, then, is how the testing program is going to look for Nebraska going forward.

The answer: Well, the answers are still not fully clear.

“We’re working details on that right now,” coach Scott Frost said Friday. “We’re not exactly sure where that’s going to land. Obviously, the limit on the roster affects us more than it would about any team in the country. The walk-on program has been a very important part of Nebraska football for generations. We’re still working through the details on that.

“The Big Ten is working hard, I give them credit, coming up with the rules and ways that we can play football and we’re just grateful that we’re actually going to get to play football. I think that’s the right decision, but I also want to be able to give all the student-athletes that are on the football team the opportunity to just compete.”

Frost acknowledged that there could be a risk of having to carry fewer players this fall, but said he hopes NU and the Big Ten can find a way to work around that.

“We just have more football players on our team than other people do,” Frost said. “We’re willing to test them, buy more tests or do whatever we have to do and hopefully we’ll have that opportunity.”

Then, the question becomes how difficult it will be to navigate through a nine-game season without running into depth issues. If a player tests positive, he is automatically out for at least 21 days — 14 minimum for the virus itself and then seven more to allow for cardiac imaging — and a team has to shut down if its positive rate breaches 5% on a rolling seven-day average.

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Many games around college football over the past four weeks have been postponed or canceled because one team couldn’t field enough healthy players. In most of those cases, isolation due to contact tracing played a big role in availability. That should not be as big an issue in the Big Ten. The league has said daily testing eliminates or severely curtails the need for contact tracing, but Frost said the Huskers still have to be vigilant about numbers.

For instance, with an injury to cornerback Braxton Clark, NU has six scholarship players known to be primarily cornerbacks, but sophomore Quinton Newsome was just recently cleared to return to activity after an injury of his own. The Huskers like their quarterback room a lot, but do have three scholarship signal-callers compared with four plus experienced walk-on Andrew Bunch last fall.

One consideration, according to Frost: Some positions are more susceptible than others at this point.

“For as many protocols and safeguards as you put in place, you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen,” Frost said. “We’re going to try to be as safe as we can and keep our kids healthy. The one thing we’ve looked at is how many players we have at each position that have tested positive for the virus or tested positive for antibodies. We feel good about our ability to field a team at a lot of positions; there’s some others where we don’t have any of our guys who have had the virus or have antibodies, so you just never know. I don’t think there’s any way to handle that.

“If at a couple of those positions we have three or four guys get it and are out 21 days, it’s going to be hard for us to figure out a way to get ready to play. That’s just the way it is. I think we could live with it if it was at deep snapper, we probably have more of those on our team than some other people, but there are a couple of positions on our team where we could get real short, real fast.”

All in all, though, Frost said multiple times on Friday that Nebraska is glad just to be getting ready to play.  

"Right now we have a pretty tight-knit group and I think they're focused on becoming the best team they can so they can compete in these 10 games and our guys are just thrilled that they're going to get a chance to play some games this fall," Frost said. 

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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