Gus Malzahn

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COVID-19 knocks out Virginia-Virginia Tech opener

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The pandemic disrupted college sports again Saturday, with Virginia and Virginia Tech postponing their Sept. 19 football opener because of COVID-19 issues at Virginia Tech.

The schools said this was a mutual agreement. No makeup date was announced for the game that had been set for Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. Virginia Tech also will not hold football practice for four days.

The postponement is the second for the Hokies since the Atlantic Coast Conference released a revised schedule. Their original opening game, slated for Sept. 12 against North Carolina State, was pushed back two weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak at N.C. State.

Virginia, suddenly faced with not opening its season until Oct. 3 at No. 1 Clemson, moved its home game against Duke to Sept. 26. The game was originally scheduled for Nov. 14.

It was just one of a series of maneuvers in a season that likely will require many more.

Since the Hokies’ original opener was postponed Aug. 26 because of outbreaks upending the Wolfpack’s preparation, there have been more than a dozen FBS games postponed because of issues with COVID-19. Three Big 12 teams scheduled to open this weekend, including No. 15 Oklahoma State, had their games postponed.

Also, BYU and Army agreed to postpone the Cougars’ visit to West Point, New York, on Sept. 19 after what BYU called “a small number” of positive test results and the resultant contact tracing restrictions. The schools said they hope to be able to reschedule.

On Saturday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said he had unidentified five starters out of practice this week because of COVID-19-related issues. A total of 10 players are sidelined from practice. No. 11 Auburn opens Sept. 26 against Kentucky.

A day earlier, Memphis announced it had multiple positive tests within the football program and a “significant number of individuals” who had to be quarantined because of contact tracing. The Tigers’ game against Houston on Friday was eventually postponed, and the Cougars worked quickly to fill the void, scheduling a visit to Baylor on Sept. 19.

On its web page, Virginia Tech reported Friday it has had 219 positive tests for the coronavirus in the previous seven days, putting its total infections at 633 since testing began Aug. 3. The numbers have risen steadily since students returned Aug. 24.

The school has not been releasing athlete-specific results.

Virginia released its latest numbers for athletes and athletic staff on Saturday, saying it has had five positive tests since the last update on Sept. 4. The school said four of the five positives were from students who recently returned to campus and that the football program has not had any positive results since the first report on July 24.

“The safety as well as the physical and mental well-being of these young men and women entrusted to our care by their families remains our top priority,” Hokies athletic director Whit Babcock said in a statement.

“I know the virus has always been here, but the virus in full force finally got to southwest Virginia, and the timing is pretty poor for football,” Babcock said later on a Zoom call, noting that schools have closed locally for a few weeks.

He added: “We could have played last week and N.C. State could not and then this week it’s reversed roles.”

He declined to say how many football players were included in the positive tests, citing the school’s interpretation of privacy laws, but added it was a “significant number where your chief medical officer says it was not safe to play.”

On Twitter, some of Virginia’s coaches praised their players.

“It is really this simple… you either are committed to your team or you are not,” offensive line coach Garett Tujague tweeted. “There are those that can sacrifice for each other and then there are those that CAN NOT. The greatest thing is… You get to make that choice.”

Running backs coach Mark Atuaia noted the “grave sacrifices” by his players.

“My heart goes out to them because no one is giving merit to the disciple my young brothers have displayed since the pandemic hit,” he wrote. “My UVA young brothers are AMAZING!!!”

Conferences proceeding with a fall football season are requiring their schools to test athletes three times per week, and the ACC altered its schedule, pushing back its start date a week and its championship game, in anticipation of teams being unable to play because of the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says any person who spends at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of a person who is infected with COVID-19 is deemed a high-risk contact and requires a 14-day quarantine. High-risk contacts can also involve touching or being sneezed on or coughed upon by an infected person.

The NCAA adopted those standards in its return-to-play guidelines.

Malzahn: 10 Auburn players sidelined by COVID-19 issues

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AUBURN, Ala. — Coach Gus Malzahn said No. 11 Auburn had five starters out of practice this week because of COVID-19-related issues.

Malzahn said Saturday the Tigers had two new positive tests this week and 10 total players are sidelined from practice because of the virus or close contact. He didn’t identify the players and declined to say if a particular position group had been hit hardest.

Auburn opens the season Sept. 26 against Kentucky and is set to begin specific game preparation on Sunday.

“All those guys will be back for the opener,” Malzahn said. But he noted that they will face challenges in getting ready when they are out until game week.

“You’re sitting here two weeks from kick and you’ve got some of your guys who aren’t practicing,” Malzahn said. “Obviously that’s concerning.”

In late August, Auburn canceled several practices after nine positive tests led to 16 players getting sidelined. Malzahn said two unspecified position groups “were hit extremely hard.”

“I think we’ve done an excellent job if you look at the last three weeks as far as the number of positives,” the coach said. “The challenge is close contact. And that’s something that is a big emphasis for us, but I know that it’s a big emphasis for everybody.

“We’ve really educated our guys. We’ve told them what they’ve got to do.”

Malzahn was asked what his backup plan for coaching a game if he’s sidelined by COVID. He cited his longtime friend, Liberty’s Hugh Freeze, who coached from a hospital bed in the coaches’ booth against Syracuse two weeks after undergoing surgery for a staph infection.

“One thing that I’ve already kind of got my mind on is, if I did, figure out a way in an isolated place in the stadium or Zoom in,” Malzahn said. “I know my buddy Hugh Freeze coached last year laying down in a hospital bed. That’s the way I’m looking at it.

“I’m going to figure out a way either through technology or isolation to still do it.”

Auburn expects to be without 16 players in practice return

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports
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AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn expects to return to practice without 16 players who are sidelined after positive COVID-19 tests.

Coach Gus Malzahn said Sunday night that the Tigers had five positives early in the week and four more after additional testing Thursday. With contact tracing, seven others who had close contact with them face a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

“We had two position groups where we did not have enough guys,” coach Gus Malzahn said Sunday night. He declined to say which positions.

Malzahn said players didn’t want to attend meetings Thursday after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Players who test positive must stay isolated for 10 days followed by a seven-day reacclimation process.

The Tigers haven’t practiced since Tuesday and canceled a planned scrimmage on Saturday. Malzahn said players will be tested Sundays and Thursdays.

The Tigers are scheduled to open the season on Sept. 26 against Kentucky.