The South Carolina State University Bulldogs have had a season unlike any other. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus, they almost didn’t have a season at all. But thankfully, they’re back in practice and poised to come back with a vengeance. Get all the details on how the team is preparing itself amid pandemic conditions below.

South Carolina State held football practice during a chilly rain on Thursday morning in Orangeburg.

During the workout, quarterback Corey Fields looked at coach Buddy Pough and said, ’Coach, I’m cold!”

“It was not pretty,” Pough chuckled.

At least the Bulldogs were playing football, which has been a rare occurrence since the coronavirus pandemic hit last March.

S.C. State hasn’t played a game since Nov. 23, 2019, and had its 2020 spring practice and fall season wiped out by COVID-19. Pough’s team was able to practice only once in the fall before an outbreak of the virus forced cancellation of fall practice.

Courtesy of Donny Knight Photography

The Bulldogs are now preparing for a four-game Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference slate that begins Feb. 20, with a berth in the MEAC championship game and a spot in the 16-team FCS playoffs up for grabs. But Pough, in his 18th season as coach at his alma mater, is taking nothing for granted.

“I am looking forward to getting back to normal, or as normal as it can be,” Pough said Thursday during the MEAC’s virtual media day. “But this virus is still kicking a little fanny, so we’ll see.”

S.C. State went 8-3 in 2019, including a victory over Southern Conference champion Wofford. Pough received a one-year extension on his contract last December, taking him through the end of this year, and S.C. State is installing new synthetic turf at Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium.

But those changes pale in comparison with what the pandemic has forced on college football coaches and players.

“We’ve had our problems with some of the issues of the coronavirus,” Pough said. “Some of the issues and protocols you deal with have been hard on our young folk.

“We missed the general camaraderie of being together. We’ve had psychologists and mental health specialists on our staff in ways we’ve never had before. I think it’s kind of been the norm around the country that young folk have struggled with isolation and quarantine and just not being together.”

Pough, who has led S.C. State to seven MEAC titles, including the 2019 championship, has had to learn a new way to coach during the pandemic.

“I never would have believed we could meet and show tape and do all that stuff virtually,” he said. “We do everything on Zoom now. We don’t have face-to-face meetings, except for what we do on the field.

“I can’t snatch a guy up now, because I can’t get to him over the Zoom. It’s a whole different kind of thought that you have to be aware of.”

Courtesy of SC State

Fields, a redshirt sophomore from Baptist Hill High School, returns as the Bulldogs’ staring quarterback. He completed 50.5 percent of his passes for 1,652 yards and 15 touchdowns against just five interceptions in 2019. Among his targets will be receiver Shaq Davis, a 6-5 redshirt sophomore from Summerville.

“Corey can throw it around a little bit, and we’ve got big old Shaq Davis catching balls from him,” Pough said. “We hope those two can get to the point where they enjoy one another’s abilities.”

S.C. State added a couple of transfer running backs in Alex James and Kendrell Flowers. James, a 5-10, 192-pounder from Florence who played three seasons at Coastal Carolina, ran for 629 yards and a TD in 2019 for Albany. Flowers, a 6-0, 205-pounder from Irmo High School, transferred in from Wake Forest.

On the other hand, standout defensive lineman Roderick Perry transferred last fall to Illinois.

The MEAC’s spring season includes six teams, with S.C. State, Norfolk State and N.C. A&T State playing in the Southern Division. Delaware State, Howard and Morgan State make up the Northern Division.

Each team will play the other two teams in its division twice, with division champions meeting for the MEAC title on April 17. The MEAC champ will receive an automatic berth in the 16-team FCS playoffs. S.C. State does have some open weeks in the spring and could add another non-conference game, Pough said. 

“We have an opportunity, a chance to win a championship of some sort,” Pough said. “I’m not sure what the validity of it will be. But I tell you what, we’d like to have it.”