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Football: Mitchell details time away due to COVID-19 before UL faces UAB

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Oct. 23, 2020

BIRMINGHAM – They may have been the longest two weeks of Max Mitchell’s life.

While his UL teammates were preparing for a late-September win over Georgia Southern, the Ragin’ Cajuns starting offensive lineman was sitting out due to COVID-19 issues.

“He spent 14 days on the couch watching Netflix, you know,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said, “so there’s gonna be some rust to knock off there.

“We’ve got a little bit of that going on.”

Mitchell returned for UL’s loss last week to Coastal Carolina, as did several Cajuns who missed extensive time.

But – like the others, including starting running back Elijah Mitchell and a handful of defensive starters including big defensive lineman Tayland Humphrey – he’s ready to go for the Cajuns’ visit with UAB on Friday night in Birmingham (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network).

Related: Cajuns will honor D.J. Looney with name on jersey in Birmingham

The forced time away, however, hasn’t been easy to handle for anyone who’s missed practice and games due either positive tests or contact tracing throughout the pandemic.

“At times it could get frustrating, but happened. Things happen for a reason, you know?” said starting cornerback A.J. Washington, who missed two games and also returned against Coastal Carolina. “So it’s just part of the process. … There’s really nothing I can do about it but sit back and watch my team.”

‘A lot can change in 14 days’

For Max Mitchell, a product of Neville High in Monroe, quarantine was truly trying.

“They were really boring,” Mitchell said of the days away. “There’s not much you can do besides your schoolwork or studying some film on your phone or working out in the backyard or something.

“Everybody asked me what I did. I couldn’t do much. I played some Xbox, and video games, and watched some movies, and worked out. That was about it.

“Coming back, it feels like the whole world’s changed,” he added. “You’ve been inside your house the whole time. You have your phone, but it’s crazy. A lot can change in 14 days.”

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Mitchell detailed his experience when asked Tuesday night.

He said his quarantine was prompted by routine blood work suggesting that at some time he apparently had unwittingly contracted the virus.

“They sent me a letter maybe a couple weeks later,” Mitchell said.

“They ran the test in the lab and said I have antibodies and I was asymptomatic … But we had to be safe and make sure I didn’t pop up with anything.”

‘It was a grind’

Mitchell is hardly the only Cajun who’s had to endure isolation.

Twelve from UL including about half-a-dozen starters missed the Georgia Southern game due to COVID-19 matters. Reserve offensive lineman Spencer Gardner missed the Coastal game as well.

Like Mitchell, Washington felt far behind once he returned.

“It was pretty hard trying to get back into practice,” Washington said. “I had to do a lot of individual work on my own.

“I had to really get back in shape, also. … Missing two games really kind of set me back a little bit. It was a grind.”

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When Mitchell returned, he was at left tackle instead of right – his position for the second half of last season and first two games this year.

Usual left-side starter Zach Robertson was still recovering from an undisclosed injury, so Napier and offensive line coach Rob Sale moved Mitchell back to left tackle, where he began the 2019 season, and kept Carlos Rubio – who made his first start as a Cajun when Mitchell was out – as the starter on the right side.

Mitchell still is listed as 3-1 UL’s left-side starter, though it remains to seen where he’ll actually play in the non-conference game against 4-1 UAB, whose only loss this season is to Miami.

“Zach, going into the Coastal game, was maybe not 100 percent, and I think he still is in the process of getting to 100 percent,” Napier said Tuesday. “So that’s part of the issue there. A little bit banged up.”

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Keeping perspective

Napier understood that Mitchell, like many of the other Cajuns who’ve missed so much due to COVID, may not have been fully back to speed either.

All their time in and out has practice evidently has taken a toll.

“Although the players are available, what process have they been through? What has the last month looked like for them?” Napier said.

More:UL coach Billy Napier gives up bonus money, cell phone stipend in COVID-19 reduction

“I think … from my perspective, and I’m just talking to myself here a little bit; I’m pretty critical of everything we do … you can’t lose sight of the fact a guy is not active physically for 10 days, then he has to go through a six-day return-to-play protocol, and then all of a sudden three or four days later (it’s) ‘Let’s go play tackle football at the Division I level.’ ”

Mitchell readily acknowledges he wasn’t at his best last time out – and the offensive line, though headed in the right direction, hasn’t been perfect either this season – but it wasn’t because of his bouncing from the right side to the left.

“I think being out of football for two weeks,” he said, “affected me more than anything else.”