Multiple Vanderbilt football players, including senior linebacker and leading tackler Dimitri Moore, have informed coach Derek Mason that they plan to opt out this season over concerns about the coronavirus.
The 14 SEC schools, including Vanderbilt, are scheduled to begin practice on Monday.
"We've had five or six opt out, and I know there will be several across the league as this thing gets closer," Mason told ESPN on Saturday. "Our kids are looking, listening and paying attention and making decisions for themselves, and that's exactly what me and my program encourage. You want these guys to be part of your program and part of your team, but not if they're uncomfortable."
At least three other players who started games for Vanderbilt a year ago have told Mason they plan to opt out this season, including offensive linemen Cole Clemens, Jonathan Stewart and Bryce Bailey.
Earlier this month, kicker Oren Milstein announced he was opting out and said on Twitter that much of his reasoning stemmed from the "uncertain long term effects of contracting this virus and the increasing examples of athletes and young people being severely affected."
Mason told ESPN that Vanderbilt has been diligent in making sure the players had as much information as possible from all of the medical experts.
"I've got kids all across the gamut just like everybody else does," Mason said. "Everybody needs to understand that there are going to be risk factors, but some kids are predisposed whether you've got an auto-immune issue or you've got a history of high blood pressure and heart issues. Those things are real. You continue to talk to your kids every week to make sure guys do feel comfortable. That's what you do, because at the end of the day you don't want any of them to feel pressure to play.
"There has to be a level of comfort with everything that's going on, and I feel good about the way we've gone about it here at Vanderbilt."
Vanderbilt is the lone private institution in the SEC and consistently ranked as one of the top academic institutions in the United States. Vanderbilt Medical Center was recently ranked No. 17 on U.S. News & World Report's annual "Honor Roll" of the top 20 hospitals in the United States.
"We've got some of the best and brightest medical people in the country right here," Mason said. "I hear people asking what's different about our science [in the SEC] than the science in another conference that has elected not to move forward. The vast majority of these kids all want to play. Some of them don't know enough and they're trying to figure it out, and there are others that are going to play no matter what. That would have been the same way at Ohio State or anywhere else.
"I'm not saying that the Big Ten or Pac-12 maybe jumped too early. I don't know. Early, late or whatever, I just know that the SEC has been about finding out information. I know we're going to take our hits for that, but the only thing that tells it is time. The only thing that will make this right or wrong is time. We'll figure it all out."