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COVID-19 cut Texas A&M football team's active roster below 53

COVID-19 cut Texas A&M football team's active roster below 53

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Because of COVID-19 contract tracing, the Texas A&M football team would have been under the 53 scholarship player threshold needed to play Saturday at Tennessee, athletics director Ross Bjork said.

Prior to the season, the Southeastern Conference set a scholarship roster minimum of 53 players needed to play games. The Aggies’ scheduled trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, on Saturday was moved to Dec. 12 on Tuesday because A&M failed to meet that minimum.

“It was quite a few, quite a few,” Fisher said Wednesday during the SEC head coaches teleconference. “It was not based off meeting room. It was based off locker room, because on the road you are in a small locker room ... and the airplane. We’ve got guys spread out all over, but it’s amazing how close six feet is.”

A&M’s deficit of players includes two players quarantined due to positive tests, an unspecified number of players deemed high risk from contact tracing as well as injures and opt outs that have reduced the active roster. Seven players have been ruled out for the season due to injury, according to Bjork, and six opted out earlier this fall. A&M defensive end Micheal Clemons was also set to miss the trip after undergoing surgery on his ankle this week.

Forced proximity during travel is ultimately what created the problem for the Aggies last weekend, Bjork said, including the plane rides, communal eating and sharing space in the visitor’s locker room at South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium.

“It’s the trip,” Bjork said. “It’s the plane where it’s hard to space everything out.”

In an attempt to stop the potential spread of the coronavirus, the athletics department mapped out a seating chart on the team’s charter plan that positions players who had COVID-19 but have recovered near players who haven’t had it to minimize any potential contact tracing. The players also are spaced out as well as they can be in a plane that offers three seats to a row.

“We have dimensions of how far is this seat away from this seat,” Bjork said. “Let’s say it’s a window seat. How far is it actually away from an aisle seat on the same row? How far is it away from across the aisle? How far is it away from the next row? We have a plane diagram and a seating manifest.”

The SEC follows the guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control that define an individual in high risk from contact tracing as one who has been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. Anyone who falls under this category must isolate for 14 days.

Football staff members also keep tabs on where players sit during team meals to aid in contact tracing. Once players have entered the locker room, their shoulder pads are equipped with a microchip that tracks who they have been in close proximity with and for how long.

A&M safety Demani Richardson is one of the two players who recently tested positive, but he did not make the trip to South Carolina because his positive test result came in Friday prior to the Aggies’ departure from College Station.

As of Tuesday, A&M’s total of positive tests stood at three: two players and one staff member. But Fisher said a couple of position groups were “greatly affected” by contact tracing.

The Aggies conducted meetings over Zoom on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Fisher said he hopes those who can practice will be able to return to the field by the end of the week.

The Aggies’ next home game against Ole Miss on Nov. 21 is in jeopardy as it falls within the 14-day quarantine period for those in contact tracing.

Bjork said the SEC athletic directors will discuss the remaining weeks of the season and how to navigate more postponed games Thursday. After that conversation, he will have a better idea of what could happen for the Aggies next week.

The SEC postponed three other football games this week: No. 1 Alabama at LSU, No. 12 Georgia at Missouri and No. 24 Auburn at Mississippi State. Also, Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman will not travel with the team for its game at No. 6 Florida after testing positive for COVID-19 twice.

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