AUBURN — This is normally the time of year when Gus Malzahn would be hyper-focused on football.
Auburn was supposed to start spring practice Monday.
But this is a time to “put football on the back burner,” Malzahn said on a teleconference with reporters Wednesday.
All college sports seasons and spring football games have been canceled, and practices have been put on hold in the Southeastern Conference until at least April 15 as the concern over the COVID-19 pandemic grows nationally.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey confirmed earlier Wednesday that the conference has not entirely eliminated the possibility of teams being able to participate in spring practice, even if it is a shortened version. But he also said the “window is pretty narrow” and that he’s not “overly optimistic” that it will happen.
“We’re going through unprecedented times right now,” Malzahn said. “It seems like everything is changing daily.”
So the No. 1 goal right now is not getting prepared for the 2020 football season, but rather ensuring the safety and well-being of Auburn’s players.
Malzahn told players last Thursday, when Auburn University decided to transition exclusively to online classes through at least April 10, that there was no need to come back to campus after spring break and that they should go home instead. All of them are healthy right now, he said, but each was given information about the symptoms of COVID-19, a directive to communicate with team physician Dr. Michael Goodlett if any issues arise, and education on social distancing and proper hygiene.
On Monday, Malzahn met with his coaching and support staff to put together a plan for how they can still function while working remotely. The head coach said he has talked to every player individually, and coordinators Chad Morris and Kevin Steele have talked to everyone on offense and defense, respectively. Position coaches have been in contact with their players daily.
So far, the conversations have not been about football.
“As of right now, it's more about checking on them, making sure their academics are right,” said Malzahn, who added that he “feels fine” and has not been tested for COVID-19. “You can give them a workout or something like that. But, as far as the Xs and Os, there will be a time that'll be appropriate. But right now, it's about their health and well-being and their safety.”
For now, players are not able to go through workouts with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell.
“With the social distancing and everything, weight rooms aren’t where you’re supposed to be,” Malzahn said.
Players are not able to be on the field learning the playbook.
That is especially trying for first-year coaches like offensive coordinator Chad Morris and line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. Morris is trying to install his offense, and Bicknell is trying to piece together a starting five along an offensive line that graduated four senior starters. Fifteen spring practices, which include an A-Day Game in front of fans, provides invaluable time with players.
But every team in the country is in the same boat. Malzahn said he still plans to meet with staff, likely remotely, on Mondays and Fridays. They plan to talk through those issues, come up with plans for how to proceed in spite of current circumstances and inform players when it is appropriate.
Every player on the team has an iPad, which they can use to watch film, learn the playbook and tune in for meetings, as well as do homework for classes and communicate with professors and academic counselors.
“This first week has been more about making sure that we’ll have the ability to operate efficiently after this first week, because there’s going to be some glitches. We’ve already ran into a few,” Malzahn said. “But by then end of the week, we’re hopeful to have all those lined out and our guys be prepared.”
There remains hope that Auburn and college football teams could get on the field at some point before August, provided conditions in the country improve. But for now, Malzahn believes staff and players have “got to be prepared that this could be a while.”
“Common sense, you'd like to be able to have your spring ball,” Malzahn said. “Common sense for every coach in America, is that they'll want to get as many practices as they can get before the start of the season. I just don't think it's an appropriate time, right now, to get into all that.”