As Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz creeps under 100 hours away from his first game with the school, leveraging his position at the helm of a Southeastern Conference program isn’t on his mind.
Within a minute of starting his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Drinkwitz provided details on the Tigers’ coronavirus testing numbers: seven COVID-19-related individuals with a "few" positive cases and the rest being contact-traced.
While those individuals’ identities aren’t known, and MU still has two rounds of testing left before its Saturday night matchup against No. 2 Alabama on ESPN, Drinkwitz did state a previous round of testing initially thought to be positive was deemed inconclusive.
Those affected players without a clear result from a COVID-19 test were reexamined with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) swab multiple times and concluded in testing to be negative for the coronavirus.
The Tigers currently stand at 69 scholarship players suiting up for their season and SEC opener against the Crimson Tide, down from the 81-player-mandated maximum Missouri’s 2020 season because of previous NCAA sanctions. The maximum for non-penalized teams is 85.
Even with those setbacks, Drinkwitz isn’t hiding the coronavirus testing information for his team from the public.
Other FBS head coaches in the past, such as Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, have said they won’t publicly share testing information, citing a competitive disadvantage for the Sooners.
"This is a public health issue, it's not a competitive advantage issue," Drinkwitz said. "... People should know what's going on within our football team as it relates to a pandemic ... and I would say that's probably for me more important than whatever competitive advantage we feel like it might be to win or lose a football game.
"I would still cite that a pandemic probably is more important than that, although I do believe in the value of football and believe in what we're doing and excited about the opportunity to represent the state of Missouri on Saturday."
Despite all of that, however, Drinkwitz also honed in on football’s opportunity to be a brief escape for fans.
"I'm excited for people to not have to focus on the pandemic and be able to watch us and this team compete and help us create our identity for what we're going to try to accomplish this year relative to the terms of this senior class," he said.
Last week, the SEC announced threshold minimums for teams to be eligible to compete in games this season. Most notably, teams needed 53 healthy players to take the field.
"We like to live dangerous ... We got 69 scholarship players," Drinkwitz said. "It is what it is, but we’re not any closer today than we were in the past."
Even a month after the start of fall camp, Drinkwitz said it’s been difficult to get into a typical rhythm while planning for this season amid a pandemic where the only certainty is uncertainty.
"Honestly, I don’t think with COVID or 2020 there’s any type of flow or rhythm or routine to anything we try to do," he said. "... Every day there’s a new challenge and when you’re testing three times a week, every time there’s a positive test, there’s multiple (players) contact traced. So, that’s going to affect your depth chart and your roster.
"I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a situation where you feel like everything’s in a rhythm or routine in a typical season."
Drinkwitz readily admits he’s not an epidemiologist, but spoke to one on Monday night and said that testing doesn’t protect you from the virus. It only states whether someone currently is infected.
To curb losing personnel due to COVID-19, some teams in the FBS have trained players at different positions. Drinkwitz said the offense has the Wildcat formation built into their game plans if necessary.
Overall, there hasn’t been much mixing of the positions for what Drinkwitz cited as limited time for extra reps. The Tigers only had 25 practices over 42 days to prepare for the season.
Yet, game week is here and even in the fluid temperature of college sports, Missouri is less than five days from its first game in almost 10 months.
"We’re just trying not to peak too soon," Drinkwitz said. "We’re pretty excited, but we got a lot of work to do.
"You don’t beat a team like Alabama with excitement. You beat them with fundamentals and execution. So, that’s really the focus that we have."
Injuries, opt-outs and more
Missouri sophomore offensive lineman Thalen Robinson was announced to be the third Tiger to opt out of the 2020 season by Drinkwitz on Tuesday, joining redshirt freshman wide receiver Maurice Massey and redshirt senior defensive lineman Chris Daniels.
Robinson played in six games as a true freshman in 2019, including each of the last three games of the season against Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Fellow MU offensive lineman Hyrin White, who was thought to be one of the favorites to start at left tackle, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
Tight end Brendan Scales took medical redshirt and will graduate in December, ending his time with the Tigers. Scales suffered a foot injury last season, with Drinkwitz stating he never fully recovered from that ailment.
Defensive lineman Sci Martin is out for the matchup against Alabama with a knee injury. Drinkwitz anticipates Martin’s return to the lineup within the next two weeks.
Trajan Jeffcoat has also rejoined the Tigers after leaving the team and entering the transfer portal earlier this year.
Jeffcoat was readmitted to MU last month and was allowed to come back to the team after meeting with Drinkwitz and other team leadership.
Drinkwitz previously announced that defensive lineman Jatorian Hansford and offensive lineman Mitchell Walters were out indefinitely with varying injuries.