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How Austin Peay navigates pandemic football for the second time

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Trying to play a football season during a pandemic is daunting enough.

But possibly parts of three seasons … all in the space of a year? And squeezed into a four-month window with three different head coaches?

Welcome to the world of Austin Peay.

“Honestly, it’s been a blessing just to have football year round,” said Kordell Jackson, Austin Peay’s All-America senior defensive back. “That’s what people have wanted since I can remember. So you ask, and you have it – football all year round. It’s an incredible opportunity for us when we didn’t even know if there was going to be football for the last summer.” “

The governors will open their seven-game Ohio Valley Conference season on Sunday at Tennessee Tech (2:30 PM, ESPN +). That’s after participating in the first live football game of any type since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic on August 29 last year, a 24-17 loss against Central Arkansas at the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff in Montgomery, Alabama .

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Central Arkansas QB Breylin Smith has his pass picked by Jack McDonald, who is celebrating with Austin Peay’s top hat and sugarcane.

Marquase Lovings mentored the Governors in all three of their fall 2020 games as interim coach after replacing Mark Hudspeth, who stepped down for personal reasons last July 3 after a 20-day suspension. Austin Peay also faced Pittsburgh and Cincinnati last September, both blast losses, before calling it quits and hoping, like the rest of his FCS brethren, that a spring conference season would blossom.

Meanwhile, Austin Peay hired a new head coach of athletic director Gerald Harrison and took Scotty Walden away from Southern Miss. Walden was serving as Southern Miss’s interim head coach at the time and found in a familiar 2020 theme that he had tested positive for COVID- 19 the day after an interview with Harrison in New Orleans in late October.

From there, the madness only escalated.

Walden was introduced as Austin Peay’s head coach on November 2, and a few weeks later, he was in the community one day with his players and coaches participating in a paint service project. Harrison couldn’t help lighting the fire under his already energetic 31-year-old head coach, who does everything up-tempo from talking and practicing to executing his attack.

Harrison, who had just heard that the Pac-12 had voted to allow his teams to search for some non-conference games, called Walden on his cell phone and told him he had to be ready to go to Oregon within a week. traveling for a game with the Ducks.

‘I know it’s short term, but we can’t refuse that kind of money. They’re going to pay us a million dollars, ”Harrison said to Walden, trying to keep it together and not burst out laughing.

Walden, still on the phone with Harrison, was already shouting for his coaches to gather the players and hang up the paintbrushes.

“I was literally ready to run these guys to the practice field at that point,” Walden said, laughing at himself as he fell for Harrison’s joke.

‘I mean, we didn’t have anything installed. I didn’t even know if we could get in line. I think, ‘Are we going to do their old crime, our offense, or something in between? ‘We hadn’t even been on the field with them. My thoughts went on all the time. “

Harrison couldn’t make it last any longer and eventually broke down, telling Walden he was kidding.

“I’m pretty gullible, but that wasn’t cool because of Gerald, not cool at all,” Walden joked.

Speaking of cool, that has been one of the biggest adjustments for the players who have been preparing for a spring season that is “spring” in name only, especially with the frigid temperatures that have gripped much of the country.

“Bro, it’s winter, 100% winter football at its best,” said Walden.

Sophomore offensive lineman Bucky Williams said it’s unreal to go all over the preseason camp with ice and snow.

“We practice outside when it’s 10 and 15 degrees outside, and you’re used to practice in the preseason when it’s 90 degrees,” Williams said.

The reality is, everyone’s routine has been turned upside down.

Austin Peay players didn’t know when they would play football again after their 55-20 loss to Cincinnati on September 19. The OVC announced in October that it planned to play a spring schedule starting in February, but only “if the pandemic supports that movement,” said Commissioner Beth DeBauche.

Knowing there were no guarantees, the players pushed forward. They did their best to stay in shape, starting with mat drills at 6 a.m. in November, keeping socially distant and focused on defending their 2019 co-OVC championship, the first in over 40 years of the school .

“Nobody knew. We didn’t know if that was our last game or when we would play again,” said Williams. “But we would be ready.”

Walden spent more time in November and December talking to his players about the culture he wanted to install than the warp-speed attack he wanted to install.

“It will pay off in the long run. We wouldn’t take shortcuts,” said Walden, who in November faced the task of also hiring assistant coaches, who in some cases were somewhere else in the middle of their seasons. . “It seemed like a different coach came in every week.”

“We didn’t know if that was our last game or when we might play again. But we would be ready.”

Sophomore offensive lineman Bucky Williams

Walden didn’t get his players on the field until January when the first full practice session arrived on January 23, and the transition to his up-tempo attack wouldn’t be easy, especially when he’s determined to put on a play every 12 hours. seconds.

“You can’t simulate how fast you’re going until you actually play in that system,” said Williams. “You can do as many sprints as you want, but until you hit another guy and then get in line and go again 12 seconds later, there’s nothing better.”

As soon as practice ended in January, the Austin Peay coaches took a crazy jump off the practice field, sprinting all four steps in the football complex to their offices, and immediately diving into recruiting visits through Zoom.

“We are all out of breath when we go to our office, put on new gear for the video conferences with the recruits, shout to each other to make sure we have the parents’ names right, what they all want to play a starring role in. in and all the other important details that matter when recruiting, ”said Walden.

‘It was crazy. There weren’t enough hours in the day. ‘

The governors will lead what essentially amounts to their third different offensive system dating back to Hudspeth’s resignation in July. They will take on Tennessee Tech without a quarterback who has ever entered a collegiate game.

“And in spite of all that, our children hung out there and held each other in spite of all the unknown,” Harrison said. “We had five opt-outs in the fall, and right now have three opt-outs in the spring. I didn’t even know what an opt-out was a year ago this time.”

Walden hasn’t had much time to think, but he vividly remembers watching Austin Peay play in that first game of the 2020 season on his sofa in Hattiesburg, Mississippi last August.

“It was a big deal, the first football game of the COVID-19 era,” Walden recalls. “People were really playing football. Heck, everyone was watching. I remember that first game before a touchdown and think I fell asleep in the second half. I had absolutely no idea I was going to coach Austin-Peay here.

“It has been different for all of us. What has not been different from last year? But what we don’t talk about enough is how resilient these children have been and the sacrifices they have made to make football a reality. Kids are doing this. since last August in the midst of all the change and uncertainty and have never wavered. ”

The two FCS teams that advance to the championship game will play until mid-May. That means they will have about two and a half months before the 2021 fall season pre-season camp starts. Austin Peay’s first game is scheduled for September 2 in Chattanooga.

“It’s the back that will get you and it will be the hardest to navigate,” Harrison said. “That’s where we have to be so careful to make sure the kids get enough free time. In the past, players went home in the summer. They don’t do that anymore. They are on campus all year round. But they go this year. “They need six to eight weeks to get away from football.”

The self-discipline required to play parts of three football seasons in one year will be unlike anything these players have ever experienced.

“You have to live well,” said Williams. ‘You have to eat well. You have to stretch. You have to keep your body healthy enough to be able to play three seasons, while you usually don’t play more than one in a year. ‘

And it’s not like COVID-19 will disappear anytime soon.

Walden has established a leadership committee to help manage COVID-19 protocols within the team with a designated person in charge of each dorm room, apartment complex or household where the players live. Governors have had zero positive tests in three of the past four weeks.

“It’s about holding people accountable and knowing that at the end of the day football on Sunday is the bigger picture,” said Jackson.

That’s right – Sunday. All but one of the Governors’ games will be played on Sunday this spring, ending with a trip to Eastern Illinois on April 11, followed by the FCS playoffs.

“As a kid you always say you want to play on Sundays,” Walden said. “Hey, we’re going to play on Sunday.”

And when it’s all over, both spring and fall this year, Walden thinks he’ll need more than just a nap.

“I get to hibernate, all of us, the coaches and players,” said Walden. “But what a journey, and we can’t wait to see where it all ends.”

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