JACKSONVILLE, Alabama — After COVID-19 forced Jacksonville State to shut down spring practice and altered its summer workouts, the Gamecocks hit the field for the first time Wednesday for their first practice of the 2020 football season.
For head coach John Grass and his squad, he said everyone was happy to finally get back to football.
"I saw a lot of guys running around, buzzing around and relieved to be on the field. We've made it to fall camp, and I think everyone was holding their breath as we wondered if we were even going to have this opportunity. So, we're thankful and blessed to be out here doing what we love to do. It's fun to have all of these guys back out here and forget what all is going on in 2020. We're out here focusing on ball, and that has been enjoyable."
This is the latest start to a fall camp for the Gamecocks in four years, after getting early starts in 2017 and 2018 because of a Week Zero contest on the schedule and in 2019 due to a 12-game season. That, coupled with classes starting in two weeks at JSU, puts even more importance on the first several days of camp.
"It's difficult to know where we are at as a team," Grass said. "Usually, this time of year, I can tell you exactly where our team is. We base that off of our spring and what we did during the summer, and that kind of got robbed from us. We don't know, so there are a lot of question marks. You worry about your players' safety with all of the outside factors of the coronavirus, but now your on-field factors – protecting bodies, recovery, where they're at shape-wise – we don't know those answers like we normally do. It's going to be a day-to-day thing, and we have to be smart on how we evaluate that. We have to listen to our players. I have to know when we need to cut back a little bit and when we can go forward and push. There's always that fine line, and knowing when to push and when to pull back is very important. I have always put a premium on that and knowing how our players feel."
To go along with the pandemic, prep for fall camps has also looked a little different. As for now, the Gamecocks cannot meet in the team room as a complete unit, and position meetings are taking place in larger rooms in order to maintain social distancing. And according to Grass, the new Athletic Sports Performance Center arrived just in time.
"We've had to come up with unique ways to get ready, and thank goodness we have our new weight room. We wouldn't have been able to operate in our old weight room. It has allowed us to take smaller groups in there. Usually, this time of year, we would all meet at once and work out all at once. With the new weight room, we take one side of the ball to meetings while the other lifts. It has made for a lot of planning and a lot of different schedules. We've even had to change our meeting rooms so that we're using larger rooms so guys can social distance and spread out. We've made accommodations that will help us move forward, because the last thing you want to do is get a setback or get shut down because of the virus."
Jacksonville State will continue to hit the practice field early in the morning to beat the heat before classes begin. Grass said the team can expect Thursday's practice to be almost identical to Wednesday, but he looks to ease up on how long the Gamecocks are outside.
"Tomorrow will look very similar to today. We'll probably cut it back timewise and see how we recover. These guys are going to be sore. This is the longest the guys have gone since this time last year in fall camp. It's a concern about their recovery, but we're going to do all we can to help them. Our weight sessions will be about an hour and 15 minutes this afternoon of recovery. They're going to be rolling out, getting in ice baths and taking care of our bodies in the training room. This time of year, you're trying to control when they eat, when they sleep and what they're doing recovery-wise."
The Gamecocks are set to kickoff the 2020 season Thursday, Sept. 3 against Florida International in Miami.