It wasn’t your typical first day of football practice at Georgia Southern, but coaches and players were excited to finally be back on the field together doing things other than just conditioning.
The Eagles didn’t have their traditional first practice on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek, but rather worked out for just over an hour at Paulson Stadium. Pads, and hitting will come later, but Friday morning the Eagle players had their helmets on, and went through position and team work on the field from about 8:30 am until just before 10:00.
“You can tell the team is hungry, and that they want it,” said coach Chad Lunsford. “We are going to be smart with them. This has been an abnormal off season training, so we don’t want to go too much. We are making sure we are asking them to do what their bodies can do. I thought they had great energy though, and I thought our coaches did a great job with them.”
Besides some people wearing masks, the first official day of practice didn’t seem too different to the casual observer, but the players and coaches felt the difference.
“It’s definitely different, but actually it feels better than last year,” said senior linebacker Rashad Byrd. “I don’t know if it was a break from football, but people are stepping up and there are plenty of positive vibes out here. People are ready to play.”
“We are excited to be back, but off the field you have what all is going on in the back of your mind,” said senior defensive end Raymond Johnson. “The good thing is once you hit the field, you just get into that mindset and get locked in on football.”
“There’s so much uncertainty out here so all we can do is focus on one day at a time,” said quarterback Shai Werts. “Coach only puts out our schedule one week at a time to help us with that. For a lot of guys coming out here to Paulson is our sanctuary. It was that way before too. If we had family problems or whatever, you can come out here and things go away, but what’s going on is always there in the back of your mind.”
“Our kids are used to going through all kinds of adversity,” Lunsford said. “This year it’s a pandemic, and social injustice, and all the things that 2020 is bringing. We have to take that head on and use our platform correctly. We have always taught them to control the controllable, and embrace the day. Those are things we have always taught them, but now more than ever they need that.”
Werts has been very outspoken over the off season in regards to social injustice. Many of the interviews he has done have revolved around his activism in the Black Lives Matter movement, and while he’s going to continue to use his platform, he knows the importance of focusing on football as well.
”There were a lot of people wanting to do interviews in regards to my platform the past few months,” Werts said. “I’m still all for doing those interviews, but now I have to balance that with football. I’m still an advocate, but I know it’s time to play football as well.”
The biggest challenge for the Eagle players and coaches has been the restrictions they are trying to keep up with as being part of the “bubble.”
“For me it hasn’t been too tough because I’m an old boring guy,” Johnson said. “A fun time for me is just sitting in the house watching old movies. You really have to pick up on your responsibilities and priorities when you are in the bubble.”
“At the facility they know what is expected from them,” Lunsford said. “They know to social distance, they know to wear a mask. We are taking all the precautions we can, and we have had to be very creative. On the field we are never in a group setting more than 10 minutes.”
“Away from here we are asking our players to be very player led in what they are doing,” Lunsford said. “Obviously you can’t be with them 24/7 so you have to encourage them. If we are going to be a championship team, you have to be able to do right when no one is looking. If we see some issues we will address them, and I hope our leadership will address it.”
The bigger question comes as students are slated to return to the Georgia Southern campus next week, and then classes begin August 17th.
“You can’t say that with 21,000 students returning you didn't have some uncertainty,” Lunsford said. “That’s when it becomes even more important to our guys to decide what they want to do, and what is most important to them. A lot of those 21,000 that come back won’t have the same goals our players do.”
“Obviously it’s going to matter who we are hanging with, and who we are around,” Lunsford said. “We need to make sure we are staying as close to our group as we can to try and keep that bubble as secure as we can.”
The Eagles continue practice Monday morning at Paulson Stadium. The first day of full pads is scheduled for Thursday.