MINNEAPOLIS - Chris Autman-Bell called Sunday one of the best practices of the season for the University of Minnesota football team.
The fact that the Gophers were even practicing is an accomplishment in itself. The team paused all football activities on Nov. 24 due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program. At its peak, 23 players and 26 staff tested positive for COVID-19. P.J. Fleck said Monday Minnesota is on track to finish its regular season at Nebraska on Saturday.
The Gophers have had no positive cases since Dec. 3, and just two Dec. 2. Minnesota will be without more than 20 players at Nebraska alone due to COVID-19 issues, but they plan to play. Autman-Bell was one of many excited to be back on a practice field.
“Honestly it felt like I was back in little league putting the pads back on. It felt like I was back in high school getting ready for a Friday night game. It just felt good being back out there on the field with my teammates, my brothers,” Autman-Bell said.
Minnesota is one of more than 80 Division I football programs to have had games either canceled or postponed due to COVID-19. Fleck defended his players Monday, and did the same last week on his radio show, when a positive COVID-19 test sometimes implies protocols aren’t being followed or college kids are being college kids.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan gave a glimpse of his daily life. Morgan is as careful as anybody, with his father having surgery this summer to remove a brain tumor and being high-risk with COVID-19. Morgan doesn’t even see his girlfriend unless she’s been tested for COVID-19.
“Nobody was to blame for our COVID outbreak. It happens, it’s Coronavirus,” Morgan said. "My life has been pretty much watch film, practice, go to Zoom online class, go home, maybe watch an episode of Netflix, maybe read a book then go to bed. It’s not been very wild to say the least.”
Same goes for linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, who said “everybody was devastated” during a team Zoom meeting to find out their game at Wisconsin was canceled.
“Everybody was doing the proper things inside the building, outside the building. It’s a contagious virus. It’s hard to avoid,” Sori-Marin said.
It’s the life of a college athlete during COVID-19, where there are more questions than answers. The Gophers haven't played since a 34-31 win over Purdue on Nov. 20, when 22 players were out due to either COVID-19 issues or injuries.
The Gophers (2-3) plan to travel to Nebraska Saturday, and they’ll face the Cornhuskers (2-4) without Rashod Bateman. The star receiver opted out of the rest of the season after the Wisconsin game was canceled. He’s expected to be a first round pick in the next NFL Draft.
It means bigger roles for Autman-Bell, Michael Brown-Stephens, Daniel Jackson, Seth Green, possibly Clay Geary and Douglas Emilien. Autman-Bell has 14 catches for 315 yards and one touchdown in five games. Jackson has five catches for 57 yards, and Green, Jake Paulson, Geary and Brown Stephens each have one catch on the season.
Other than Bateman and Autman-Bell, only Ko Kieft has a receiving touchdown this season.
“Nothing changes. I’ve still got to be the same person I am. I don’t have to be a super hero, I’ve just got be the same person I am, be the best teammate I can be. Go make plays,” Autman-Bell said.
“We’re definitely excited for guys to be able to get opportunities to go out and make plays. As a quarterback, it’s my job to elevate the people around me, and I have to do that at a way higher level,” Morgan said.
Under Fleck, the Gophers have preached about responding and not letting circumstances dictate behavior. After sitting for two weeks, doing only film review and Zoom meetings, the Gophers are moving forward as if they’re playing Nebraska Saturday.
Their hope is they get two more games beyond that. They’ve stuck together through all the uncertainty, and they’re going to play as long as it’s safe.
“There’s no reason to quit on each other now. We love each other as teammates, we talk about family all the time. Every day it’s an easy choice to get up and go play with the guys that you love and play as a team,” Sori-Marin said.