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As college football programs around country shut down amid COVID-19, South Alabama soldiers on

The week just past was among the most-sobering in college football, as four FBS conferences and numerous others in the FCS made the decision to shut down football until the spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

© Mike Kittrell/AL.com/al.com/TNS
South Alabama scrimmages Wednesday, August 12, 2020, at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

The Sun Belt Conference is one of those still planning to play, however, which is good news for South Alabama. And not only are the Jaguars still preparing to play in 2020, they’re doing so at full speed.

South Alabama held a 106-play, full-contact scrimmage on Wednesday night in Mobile, and plans another for Saturday morning. In doing so, they also performed a “soft opening” for Hancock Whitney Stadium, the $73-million, 25,000-seat on-campus facility that had been under construction since mid-2018.

© Mike Kittrell/AL.com/al.com/TNS
South Alabama scrimmages Wednesday, August 12, 2020, at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

And while the two hours or so they were on the field Wednesday provided a respite from talk and worry over the pandemic, reality was still there to slap the Jaguars in the face when they left the locker room.

“You try to block it out,” sophomore quarterback Desmond Trotter said. “Social media is not good for that right now. But you just come to work every day knowing we get the chance to play college football. … Of course it’s bothering us, but being here every day gives us a boost.”

© Mike Kittrell/AL.com/al.com/TNS
South Alabama scrimmages Wednesday, August 12, 2020, at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

The Sun Belt Conference and its members are committed to playing a full 2020 season, or at least as much of one as they can finish. South Alabama is set to open its schedule on the road Sept. 3 at Southern Miss, then return home for the first game at Hancock Whitney vs. Tulane on Sept. 12.

In consultation with university and local health officials (South Alabama is home to one of the top medical schools and hospital systems in the region), USA has set limits of 25% capacity for home games. That means no more than 6,250 fans will be allowed in the stadium, with social distancing and other guidelines in place.

Until then, it’s up to the players to maintain their health by using proper COVID-19 protocols. Wide receiver Devin Voisin said he and his roommates — which include twin brother Jaden and older brother Keon, both of whom are Jaguars defensive backs — have done their best to maintain a coronavirus-free “bubble” environment at home.

“When we’re in the house, we’re basically in our own bubble,” Devin Voisin said. “So we don’t wear a mask around each other. But when we’re in the car, we’ll put our mask on until we get back in the house. We try to stay away from the outside public as much as possible. Of course, you still have to go get groceries and all that, but we just try to separate ourselves from everyone else, keep our ‘bubble’ small.”

© Mike Kittrell/AL.com/al.com/TNS
South Alabama scrimmages Wednesday, August 12, 2020, at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

Trotter added that he and his roommates and teammates have also done so, at the expense of other relationships.

“We stay with each other,” Trotter said. “We never go see anybody else. Half of us haven’t seen our families in three or four months. It’s a part of football now. Everywhere we go, we ‘mask up.’ That’s just the safest way we can do it. … We’re a little more comfortable at home.”

Though it’s not feasible for football players to wear masks on the field, NCAA guidelines advise them to do so on the sideline. South Alabama’s coaches, many of whom are approaching an age that makes them high-risk for contracting the virus, wear masks at all times when with each other. Coaches are also using electronic, hand-held whistles, considered safer than conventional ones placed in the mouth.

Players are tested regularly, and thus far results have been promising, head coach Steve Campbell said. What is not in the coaching staff’s control, however, is what happens when players venture away from the football facility.

“You definitely have to talk about it,” Campbell said. “Because you can test negative, and then leave here and go hang out with some people that are not under the same protocols as you are, and you can easily find yourself testing positive. … There are a million little things in football that you’ve got to do right. Now there are a lot of little things you’ve got to do right — social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands, cough into your elbow. We’ve got to stay diligent. Just like, all it takes is one turnover to cost you a ballgame. A misstep out in the community could cost you.”

© Mike Kittrell/AL.com/al.com/TNS
South Alabama head coach Steve Campbell, center, meets with defensive coordinator Greg Stewart, right, and defensive line coach Harland Bower, left, during practice Friday, August 7, 2020. All three coaches are wearing face coverings due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.

The general South Alabama student body — which numbers around 16,000 most years — has begun returning to campus, in anticipation of classes beginning Monday. Classes will be “blended” at first — some online, but with at least one in-person meeting per week.

The reality is that despite all the protocols in place, South Alabama’s season — or that of any of their opponents — could be delayed or shut down at any point by a COVID-19 outbreak. Circumstances with the virus could also change so much in a negative direction that the season itself is cut short or even canceled before it starts.

Campbell said he’s been working to help his team understand what it can control and what it can’t and focus on the latter.

“We’ve been trying to get the guys to understand that we can’t control (the status of the season),” Campbell said. “That’s somewhere else. All we can control is what’s in front of us, and that’s all we need to spend time worrying about. Right now, we’re all doing good, we’re healthy, thank the Good Lord. We have this opportunity to come play in this beautiful, brand new stadium. If you love football, what more could you ask for?

“Our guys want to play; they’re excited about playing and all that. But when you hear a lot of noise from the outside, it takes a strong person and a strong person to keep (focused). Because football camp is hard when you’re not in a pandemic. But … you’ve got conferences around the country going ‘we’re out, we’re out, we’re out.’ Football’s a great opportunity for a lot of people, and we’ll use it for that. It teaches you to overcome adversity, and right now we’re in an adverse situation.”

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©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

Visit Alabama Media Group, Birmingham at www.al.com

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