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Auburn preaches COVID-19 accountability as camp kicks off

For two-plus months, Auburn University was mostly quiet, with few students coming and going for a handful of in-person, summer courses.

Gus Malzahn's Tigers took care of themselves and looked out for their own safety in regards to the coronavirus pandemic. There weren't many outside factors to concern themselves with — test at the start of the week, quarantine if need be, work out, and keep outside exposure to a bare minimum. Rinse and repeat.

Now, Auburn students are back, with classes — some on campus, some online — resuming Monday at the university's main campus. And though Auburn tested all students for COVID-19 before their return, and the university has implemented stringent health safety measures across campus, Malzahn knows his players have to be more responsible than ever in order to preserve hope for a 2020 Auburn football season.

Auburn WR Anthony Schwartz was vocal about his frustrations with his fellow AU students last week.
Auburn WR Anthony Schwartz was vocal about his frustrations with his fellow AU students last week. (Auburn Athletics / @AuburnFootball on Twitter)

The eighth-year Auburn coach said his Tigers have put too much effort this summer into preserving a chance at playing for it to be jeopardized now.

“They’ve done a lot of sacrificing," Malzahn said of his team Monday on a Zoom call with local reporters.

For the first time since June, Malzahn and Auburn publicly disclosed their COVID-19 testing numbers. Since June 4, the program has administered 864 total tests to players and coaches, with 34 positive results (33 players and one coach).

Malzahn didn't specify how many players were positive at one time or when in the offseason the numbers rose, but he did hint at a point in summer workouts where positive cases were growing within the team.

The Tigers used the hiccup as motivation to increase self-responsibility.

"There was a time in midsummer when we had quite a few of those 33 positives, and our team just came together and started being accountable to each other," Malzahn said.

Auburn received zero positive results in its latest round of COVID-19 testing last week.

"We’ve done a really good job inside this building, but when we go outside this building, we’ve got to be responsible," Malzahn said of Auburn's general student population returning this week. "We’ve been preaching to our guys about masks, social distancing — your circle’s got to be very small, who you’re with. Our guys have done a super job with that."

Over the weekend, Auburn receiver Anthony Schwartz and offensive lineman Kam Stutts expressed their frustrations with what they saw from their fellow AU students around campus and in downtown Auburn.

Malzahn understands his players being vocal about mask-wearing, for example, since they had to adhere to such strict guidelines for more than two months while in and around the football facilities.

"I think because of the sacrifice they’ve done to get here, these guys want to play," he said.

Still, he doesn't want a divide between student-athletes and the general student population. Malzahn used the opportunity Monday to make a plea to those returning to campus this week.

The gist? We're in this together if we want football played this fall.

"Hey, students — you’re in it with us, and we need your help of wearing your mask, social distancing. Be responsible," Malzahn said. "So, I think that’s really where that’s coming from with [Schwartz and Stutts], and I know there’s some other players that have expressed concerns. And we knew that this is going to be a telling time right now with all the students coming back to campus."

The goal is to avoid an outbreak on campus that would massively hinder — or cancel altogether — a program's hopes of playing. North Carolina, which was slated to play Auburn in Week 2 before the SEC moved to a conference-only schedule, has indefinitely canceled all in-person classes just a week into the semester after 100-plus COVID-19 cases came back positive among students.

As Auburn begins fall camp Monday, four players are away from the team to finish up their COVID-19 quarantines from previous positive tests — including Australian punter Oscar Chapman, who arrived this week. Malzahn expects them back soon.

In the mean time, practices will commence. At the end of the week, the Tigers will don pads for the first time since the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. Finally, some normalcy for Malzahn and company.

Auburn will do its best to ensure it'll last.

"We’re just doing everything we can to really stay self-isolated to protect our players so we have a good chance of playing this season," Malzahn said.

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