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Football: UL players adamant about desire to play football season

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, August 10, 2020

With its season on the verge of potential collapse, the UL football team planned to hold its fourth practice of preseason camp Monday night.

The Ragin’ Cajuns did so amid much uncertainty, but also conflicting signs, as to whether or not they will play in 2020.

A wave of sentiment to give it a go came from several corners in the Sun Belt Conference, to which UL belongs, on Sunday and Monday, and that includes the Cajuns.

“We seniors … we want to play,” Elijah Mitchell, UL’s standout running back from Erath High, said Monday afternoon. “There’s no doubt about it, and I just feel like if you don’t want to play, there’s something wrong, you know what I’m saying?

“But … you also can’t control it, so if we can’t play then that’s just what it is.”

Capping a week in which the NCAA’s Division II and Division III levels also canceled their fall football championships due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that according to Johns Hopkins University has infected more than 5 million and killed more than 162,000 in the United States alone, however, the MAC became the first FBS domino to fall when on Saturday it pulled the plug for this year too.

The Big Ten is reportedly set to follow suit, which would make it the first Power 5 conference to do so.

More:Bengals QB Joe Burrow says he wants college football players’ voices heard

The day before camp opened Friday, UL players had mixed feelings on what will ultimately happen — and another prominent Cajun, starting quarterback Levi Lewis, is openly lobbying to play.

“I’m pretty confident we’re gonna have a whole season,” defensive lineman Tayland Humphrey said then.

“We’re confident, but we’ve just got to take it all week one day at a time,” Lewis, who on Monday tweeted the hashtag “WEWANTTOPLAY,” added at the time.

The hashtag has become popular for members of the movement who want to get in the season.

Related:COVID-19 concerns cloud start of UL preseason camp

Further comment from Lewis was requested Monday, but he was not made available by the team.

Outside linebacker Joe Dillon, meanwhile, wasn’t sure what the Cajuns would be able to play when he spoke to reporters late last week.

A full 12-game regular season? An eight-game conference-only season?

Dillon had no idea when he spoke last week.

More:UL opens camp with three Cajuns out with major injuries

“I’m just hoping that we get to play our season. I really don’t know,” he said when asked how many games he thought UL would play in 2020 after going 11-3 with a Sun Belt Conference title game appearance and a LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio) of the MAC last season. “I can’t say how confident I am in it. I’m just hoping that we actually have a season.”

Prior to practice Monday, other Cajuns expressed similar wishful thinking.

“We all have a mindset, as we speak for team … that we do want to play, no matter what it is going on,” said sixth-year offensive lineman Ken Marks, a member of UL’s player leadership group. “But if the NCAA sees fit, then we have to abide by that.”

“As of right now, we’re just planning like whatever goes goes,” linebacker Kris Moncrief added. “We’re just working hard and just preparing for anything and everything.”

Early last week, the Sun Belt announced its teams would play an eight-game league schedule and that they’d be permitted to play up to four non-conference games — a typical season, in other words.

The league issued a short statement, but Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill declined to comment on it.

The SBC decision came a few days after the SEC announced it would play a 10-game conference-only schedule, presumably costing the Cajuns their planned Nov. 21 visit to Missouri.

Related:SEC schedule decision could prove costly for the Cajuns

More:UL, Sun Belt Conference football teams can play complete schedule

Another of UL’s scheduled non-conference opponents, McNeese of the FCS Southland Conference, delayed the start of the its preseason camp.

The traction to play started slipping for some late last week, and after the MAC — a Group of Five league, like the Sun Belt — announced its decision Saturday, presidents and chancellors from Big Ten schools met Sunday night to discuss that conference’s football future.

The Big Ten voted 12-2 to cancel the season, reported the Detroit Free Press, which also, citing unnamed sources, said that “a formal announcement is expected to Tuesday.”

Power 5 conference commissioners also reportedly met Sunday and Old Dominion of Conference USA canceled its season Monday.

Another faction, however, is firmly in favor of playing.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” star quarterback Trevor Lawrence of ACC-member Clemson tweeted Sunday.

“Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19 … Not to mention the players coming from situations that are not good for them/ their future and having to go back to that.

“Football is a safe haven for so many people,” Lawrence added. “We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football.”

More:UL assistant football coach Looney dies of heart attack

Related:Ragin’ Cajun coaches mourn loss of UL assistant Looney

Accompanied by the same “#WeWantToPlay” hashtag quarterbacks Lewis and Lawrence used, coach Matt Viator of Sun Belt-member UL Monroe weighed in with this tweet Monday morning:

“As the Head Coach of @ULMFB I am so proud of how our players have handled themselves during these difficult times. They have followed every protocol asked of them and deserve every opportunity to play the game they love. I fully stand behind our players and staff.”

“I met with the leaders of our team today & the response was unanimous, #WeWantToPlay,” coach Chip Lindsey of Troy, which also belongs to the Sun Belt, tweeted Monday. “The work they have put in on the field & to follow all of the safety protocols must be commended. They deserve the chance to see their work payoff with a season; I stand with & support them.”

Players from Sun Belt member Arkansas State have taken a stand as well.

The team’s leadership council, comprised of multiple players, issued a statement Sunday night that, in part, said it “can say with overwhelming conviction that not only do we want to play the 2020 season, but that we are also confident the appropriate steps are being taken to ensure we do so in a safe manner with everyone’s health and well-being the top priority.”

“We understand very important national conversations taking place at this time will determine the future of our season,” the Red Wolves’ football leadership council also said. “We are respectfully issuing this unified message advocating to play the season so that our opinions and feelings on the matter may be heard by those making the decisions on how best to proceed.

“We want it to be understood that our Arkansas State coaching staff, administration, doctors and trainers have been entirely transparent through this process, explaining the risks involved and the appropriate steps and measures being taken to reduce those risks.

“We 100 percent believe that these precautions have been effective and would allow for us to play with health and safety being at the forefront of everything we do. We feel that our campus, and specifically our athletics facilities, are the safest place we can be during this time as we have access to additional safety protocols and health officials.

“Even if we suspend the season, there is no guarantee that we won’t contract the coronavirus and face risks, just like many others have who don’t play sports,” it added. “However, being in a structured environment with a daily health-and-prevention routine provides us peace of mind that our campus is doing everything possible to consider our safety first while still playing.”

More:LSU player opts out after COVID-19 hits family hard as season prospects dim

At UL, head coach Billy Napier suggested his team was paying attention to what was happening. He also hoped it would not be led off-track by it.

“I think that we’re very well aware, and very well informed, of what the national landscape is,” he said Monday. “And certainly there’s lots of tough decisions being made.

“But it’s important that we focus on the things that we can control. … There’s no question there’s a little bit of conversation and distraction relative to that, but that’s merited and certainly we understand that."  

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