Last week was tough for the Auburn football program.
Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn told reporters on Sunday night that his team will be without 16 players when it returns to practice on Tuesday due to COVID-19 issues.
Auburn practiced just once last week with an array of positive tests among the players and others potentially exposed to the virus via contract tracing. Between that and the players feeling “extremely upset” on the heels of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Malzahn said the week was “pretty challenging.”
Malzahn explained that five players tested positive for COVID-19 last Sunday, Aug. 22, and then four more came up positive during the week. When the team practiced last Tuesday, it was without “16-18 players” because of what Malzahn termed “COVID-related issues.”
Two position groups — Malzahn declined to specify which ones — were particularly affected, and Auburn decided to cancel Wednesday’s practice.
“We had two position groups, we just didn’t feel like we had enough guys to be able to practice,” Malzahn said.
Malzahn said the entire team was tested again on Thursday. That same day, Malzahn decided to call off team meetings with his players not feeling up to engaging in football activities because of the Blake shooting. The team reconvened Friday and Malzahn decided to cancel Saturday’s practice to give everybody a break — both mentally and physically.
Additional team meetings and testing followed on Sunday, and the Tigers are now turning the page toward the coming week of practice. Malzahn said the team plans to practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday before scrimmaging on Saturday. With 16 players out, though, there will certainly be some challenges.
“We’re learning as we go here. Every day and every week is a different challenge,” Malzahn said. “We talked about the teams that can be adaptable, but this is a learning process for everyone.”
Student body’s return to campus caused issues for Auburn
“Very few” of Auburn’s players have major symptoms of the virus and Malzahn said there wasn’t a specific event, like a party, that led to the cases on his team. Like several other football programs around the country, Malzahn said the general student body returning to campus presented a challenge — and an influx of positive tests — for Auburn.
“The challenge with having students back the last two weeks, obviously we haven’t responded as well as we did before they did. We’re going to have to adjust. We’re going to have to adapt. We’re just taking it day by day and week by week. We’ll see what happens once the season gets here,” Malzahn said.
“Our players are learning. You bring the students back on campus and if you live off campus, even if you got a roommate, you gotta have your mask on or you’ve got to stay on the other side of the house. It’s a learning process. I believe our guys are going to do everything they can to be healthy and keep our team healthy.”
Auburn is four weeks away from opening its season at home against Kentucky on Sept. 26. With the season creeping closer, Malzahn said there is somewhat of a sense of urgency in terms of his team’s preparedness. But he will not do anything at the cost of his players’ health.
“The bottom line is the health and safety of our players. That’s always going to be first. When you’re going through this there’s the competitive side, but we’re always going to put our team first — the mental and physical health of our players. We’re four weeks out. We feel like we have time to prepare. We’ll take it day by day and do the best we can.”
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