It is the second week of September.
The Stony Brook football team should be hard at work preparing for their scheduled matchup with the Florida Atlantic Owls, a strong Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team that won the Conference USA championship last year with an 11–3 record. The last time the Seawolves played an FBS team in the Sunshine State, it was No. 19 South Florida in 2017, a game that Stony Brook led at halftime and tied in the fourth quarter before the Bulls pulled away.
Instead, Stony Brook stayed home this weekend. There was no game in Florida, nor will there be any for the rest of 2020. All 11 games on the Seawolves’ schedule were wiped on July 17, when the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) announced that it was suspending the fall football season, with the intent to play in spring 2021 instead.
“It was definitely a smack in the face,” redshirt-senior quarterback and team captain Tyquell Fields said in an interview with The Statesman. “I didn’t know how to take it at first. But, I took on a ‘take things one day a time’ and ‘control what you can control’ approach and I ran with it.”
Even with the uncertainty spiraling earlier in July, Stony Brook scheduled another FBS opponent in Western Michigan after Fordham and the Patriot League pulled out of the planned season opener.
“We scheduled it thinking we would play it not knowing what the outcome would be, obviously understanding that as each day moves, things could change,” Stony Brook head coach Chuck Priore said in an interview with The Statesman.
The CAA gave its member schools the opportunity to pursue a fall schedule independent of the conference, which some teams such as James Madison explored before eventually reneging. That possibility was never looked at by the Stony Brook administration, even if it meant triggering clauses in the scheduling contracts — specifically a COVID-19 cancelation clause for the Western Michigan game — that led to the Seawolves not receiving the planned hundreds of thousands in guarantee money.
“I 100% agree with the team’s decision to not play,” Fields said. “Some guys were not in shape coming back, and that’s very important. If we would have played, I felt like a lot of injuries would have happened.”
COVID-19 took away Stony Brook’s ability to hold traditional spring practices, which Priore admitted was a challenge for his team.
“It was certainly different when the team left not knowing whether we would be back,” he said. “We talked about being the most organized and efficient program in the CAA, so we took hold of that both academically and with our workouts. We had tons of Zoom football meetings over the course of those three months [that] they would have gone and learned things. We did a lot of student-coaching interaction and bonding of our players, [who] got to know each other better.”
The pandemic meant that Fields — who put up a single-season program record 2,809 total offensive yards in his first year as Stony Brook’s starting quarterback — had to adjust his workout routine, with a strong focus on growing mentally from his junior season. His 2,471 passing yards in 2019 ranked second all-time for the Seawolves behind T.J. Moriarty’s 2,495 in 2004.
“From my position as quarterback, it’s hard getting in timing with all my receivers and building a relationship with the guys on the offense,” he said. “While I was at home, I was running to stay in shape and throwing to one guy, [redshirt-freshman wide receiver] Shawn Harris [Jr.]. I really didn’t get to lift weights as much because I didn’t have access to any. But when I got back here, they made sure to get us back in shape, and I feel faster and stronger than ever.”
Priore’s squad resumed in-person training in August with new safety precautions in place. All players undergo health screenings before practice, then they are divided into small groups, each one with different practice times; workouts require masks and social distancing; and athletes who use the weight room must keep to their own stations.
Although the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has not approved a final blueprint for spring football, Priore disclosed that the current plan is for an eight-game regular season and a postseason over a 13-week period, with the final date of regular-season competition on April 17. Priore said that an NCAA meeting to discuss the matter will occur this week and the number of conference games for Stony Brook’s spring season is not set in stone.
For redshirt-senior defensive back TJ Morrison, who was also named one of four team captains back in December, the leadership position became even more important to him as the pandemic separated the team in the offseason.
“It’s easy when you see somebody every day, but having to talk on Zoom and not being able to have that human interaction every day, it’s kind of hard to be a leader,” Morrison said in an interview with The Statesman. “But I feel we did a great job with the team… We have great pieces everywhere. Our D-line is great, our linebackers are great, our D-backs are young and athletic. As long as we bring it all together and just play as a team and one unit, I feel like we’ll really be successful.”
It remains to be seen just when Stony Brook Football will take the field again in an actual game. Having ended the 2019 season dropping six of the final seven, the team is hungry for redemption after missing the FCS Playoffs for the first time since 2016. While no player would call the Seawolves’ decision to scrap its fall season and play in the spring ideal, it provided a moment of clarity after a summer of uncertainty. All eyes are pointed to a few months in the future, when the team will hopefully make its return to the gridiron.