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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.”

Tennessee, Auburn cancel practice due to positive tests

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel
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Positive tests for COVID-19 has forced a pair of ranked Southeastern Conference teams to cancel at least a practice or two as the league announced guidelines for game day covering everything from who will be allowed on the field to press boxes.

Coach Jeremy Pruitt said he canceled Friday’s practice for No. 25 Tennessee due to a “few more positive” test results and Saturday night’s practice also could be canceled depending on the results after everyone in the program was tested Friday morning.

No. 11 Auburn has canceled its last two practices because of positive test results this week, said a person with knowledge of the situation. How many players, coaches or others tested positive remained unclear. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss details.

Pruitt said it was his decision to cancel Friday’s practice. Tennessee has had good testing results with the exception of when the Volunteers returned after eight days off for the Fourth of July holiday. Then results returned more positive tests, so Pruitt said he shut down practice.

“We retested everybody again this morning to see where we’re at,” Pruitt said. “Our No. 1 priority here is to be able to protect everybody associated with our program, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. As we get the results back, we’ll see exactly where we’re at and we’ll start practice up accordingly.”

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is scheduled to speak to reporters Saturday. Auburn spokesman Kirk Sampson would only confirm that the Tigers hadn’t practiced Wednesday or Thursday as scheduled.

Malzahn had previously said the Tigers had gone two straight weeks without a positive after a rash of positives a month before. He said Auburn still had four players going through protocols when the team began practice on Aug. 17.

“We’re going to be very transparent,” Malzahn said on Aug. 22. “We’ll keep y’all updated from week to week as we go, and we hope the other programs do the same thing.”

Vanderbilt also missed two practices after canceling a scheduled session Aug. 21 and didn’t return to practice until Wednesday.

The Tigers are scheduled to open the season against Kentucky while Tennessee visits South Carolina on Sept. 26 as the SEC kicks off its 10-game, league-only season.

Pruitt said the Vols might not practice Saturday night either if they don’t track down the source of the latest positive test results.

“We want to make sure we figure out why,” Pruitt said of these increased positive results.

Pruitt said students are back on campus and this is something their players are going to have to learn to handle. Tennessee wants to trace these positive results back to the source of infection to prevent this from happening again.

With the season kickoff still a month away, Pruitt said they have time to be cautious and still get the 25 practices allotted in.

“It’s not like we are running out of time or anything like that,” Pruitt said. “We want to make sure that we are protecting or players and reassuring their safety.”

NCAA coaches and players call off practices

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
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Football practice was canceled at Boston College, Kentucky, South Florida, and other schools Thursday, joint decisions made by coaches and players and inspired by NBA players protesting racial injustice.

Baylor players decided to forgo practice to unite around the ongoing events in the country, marching from the athletic complex to Fountain Mall in the heart of the campus in Waco, Texas, to pray.

BC coach Jeff Hafley said instead of hitting the field, the team held meetings to discuss racism in the United States, first as a whole and then in smaller groups.

Some players shared stories about how racism affected them or their families, “how scared they are sometimes, and how emotional they are right now,” said Hafley, who is in his first season as Eagles head coach.

At South Florida, another first-year coach called off practice.

“These are real-life situations that are going on,” Bulls coach Jeff Scott said, choking up. “I think as a coach, you always take pride in being able to fix things for your players. This is one of those situations that, as a coach, you can’t fix for your players.”

The NBA called off its entire schedule Wednesday and Thursday after the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake, who is black, was shot seven times in the back when he leaned into his car. Other sports followed.

The college football season for many teams is still several weeks away, but still the movement spilled onto campuses across the country.

At Baylor, which has first-year coach Dave Aranda, the Big 12 school said in a statement that the team used its practice time to instead have “an open conversation about how to come together as one to unite against social injustice, to discuss practical ways to support hurting teammates, and to take time to pray for God to use the team to create change.”

At Kentucky, players went to the practice field, and then left.

Wildcats defensive end Josh Paschal and guard Luke Fortner met with reporters said the team had the support of coach Mark Stoops.

Paschal said when the players met, a teammate shared a story of family member who had been shot during a traffic stop by the police.

“We know there is an issue with this country and we’re willing to fight for that,” said Paschal, who is Black. “And even though we have teammates that may not look like us, we know that they have our back, too, because, we’re just all a family right here.”

Fortner, who is white, said the players wanted to do more than just tweet hashtags.

“We’re planning on continuing our volunteer service, but with an emphasis on youth and minorities in the community,” Fortner said. “We plan on opening dialogue with the Lexington police and inviting an open conversation. We plan on making this a consistent effort, not something that dies down in just a week.”

Paschal said he hopes fans respect the players for standing up for what they believe, even if they don’t totally agree.

“I feel like this is a human rights issue,” he said. “This is not a political issue or anything like that. I believe that we should all be united in this fight against police brutality and we should all be for it, not half and half or not against us.”

At Western Kentucky, coach Tyson Helton said he called off practice after meeting with players and coaches to discuss current events.

Earlier this summer, college football players and coaches all over the country were notable participants in rallies and marches to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was being detained by police in Minneapolis.

The shooting of Blake has sparked a new round of protests and demonstrations.

“We have a group of people who are hurting, and we have coaches who are hurting. And we have another group of people who are trying to understand,” Hafley said. “We have a group of people who stood up today and said, `I’m sorry I haven’t said anything. I don’t know what to say and I do have empathy, and I do care, and I want to help.’

“And I do believe we had some really great conversations today because things do need to change. There is too much hate and there needs to be more love and it’s sad,” Hafley said. “And I’m very very proud of our football team today.”