Next team up: Local football teams prepare for COVID-19 to take a toll on depth

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North Murray High School football players group together on the sideline during a first-round Class 3A playoff game against Monroe Area in Chatsworth last season.

The phrase “next man up” is commonly used by coaches, especially in football.

With the high degree of contact found in the sport, injuries happen, and the next man steps in to fill any holes in the lineup.

With the high school football season set to begin Sept. 4 in Northwest Georgia, local coaches find themselves preaching that idea more than usual in fall camp. During a season scheduled to be played with the outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) ongoing, who and how many can play may be a daily question.

“We use all those cliches to try to motivate the kids like ‘next man up,’ and ‘one play away,’” Northwest Whitfield High School head football coach Josh Robinson said. “I think they really understand it this year. They truly are one kid getting sick at school away from being counted on.”

The Georgia High School Association released guidelines for games that recommend players, coaches and staff be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and have their temperature checked prior to each game. A positive test will lead to 14-day quarantining for the person and anyone deemed to have been in close contact with them starting from two days before the test was given.

With these precautions, Dalton head football coach Matt Land says it’s inevitable each team will be affected at some point.

“We’re all going to deal with it,” Land said. “The question is how much.”

Robinson has his Northwest team practicing in two different groups to try to retain as many players as possible should someone test positive. A mix of a few offensive and defensive starters are in separate groups.

At Southeast Whitfield, a positive test may lead to canceled games, head coach Todd Murray said.

“As few kids as we have now, it may be a thing where if our team gets it, we may have to quarantine,” Murray said.

The Raiders have about 50 players on the roster currently.

North Murray senior D’Ante Tidwell said he constantly tries to help encourage the younger members of his team to prepare to play.

“I always tell them ‘Be ready, be ready, we’re going to need you,” Tidwell said.

“I put those guys in there in practice,” Tidwell’s head coach at North Murray, Preston Poag, said. “Some of those guys aren’t ready yet, but they may have to play. They need reps. I tell them every day.”

As the season goes on, Robinson said the teams that succeed may be the teams that can field the most intact team.

“In those last few games, it may just be whoever is the last man standing,” Robinson said.

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