When the clock ran out on the Michigan football team’s Citrus Bowl loss to Alabama on New Year’s Day, returning players naturally began looking ahead to spring football.
Two short months later, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring football in its entirety, causing players to look ahead to the fall season. Come August, that countdown was pushed back yet again when the Big Ten presidents and chancellors postponed all fall competition until the spring. But last week, it was accelerated by the conference’s unanimous decision to reinstate the fall football season.
With all that uncertainty now in the rearview mirror, the Wolverines are set to open their season against Minnesota on Oct. 24, just a month from Thursday. That’s not far off, especially considering the glaring absence of a normal year’s preparation — most notably spring football and August contact practices.
Earlier this month, coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters his team could be ready to play in two weeks. Even after the season was initially postponed in August, Michigan continued holding voluntary practices, meetings and workouts under an NCAA rule that permits 20 hours of training per week through camp.
The only missing part? Pads.
Until the Big Ten announced the reversal of the season’s postponement, the Wolverines had barely hit since last December’s Citrus Bowl practices. And now, with a month until their first game, they’ve been thrown into the fire.
“I think the biggest challenge for (players) is going to be the football conditioning,” former Michigan offensive lineman Erik Magnuson, who played five seasons from 2012-2016, said. “… The first few days of training camp are always going to be hard on your body, but the football conditioning is something that’s overlooked.
“You can run, you can lift, you can do all that stuff, but there’s nothing quite like playing 65 or 75 plays in a game. I think the biggest challenge is going to be getting those guys in the right shape to play a full game and play the game at a high level.”
Take the Wolverines’ offensive line, for example, where junior right tackle Jalen Mayfield is the lone returning starter. Without spring football and a late-summer preseason, Michigan didn’t have much of a chance to break in its new starters following the cancelation of football and a restricted late-summer preseason.
For younger players, spring football is all about getting up to speed physically and playing through mistakes. The Wolverines sorely missed that in March. Even so, the month between the season’s reinstatement and the trip to Minneapolis is roughly equal to the amount of preseason practice time leading up to a normal season, with the exception of spring football’s cancelation. The bigger worry in a season like this is positional fundamentals.
“Offensive line (preparation) is a little different,” Magnuson said. “All the punching and grabbing and use of your hands can cause a lot of fatigue or tendonitis in your shoulders and elbows. … Mentally, it’s going to be a challenge for younger guys especially, who don’t know the system yet and missed a lot of time to learn the offense and a lot of time to really learn how to play within the system.”
While Magnuson points out the technical obstacles, former Michigan linebacker Allen Gant — who played for the Wolverines from 2012-2015 — predicts the biggest challenge will lie in the team’s mental preparation.
“The biggest challenge is to give the guys some consistency,” Gant said. “After having such a long layoff and a lot of uncertainty around college football, especially in the Big Ten conference, the main thing is getting those guys ready for a game-like atmosphere.”
The nature of a game-like atmosphere will be unlike any other this fall. Without raucous crowds, non-conference matchups and the century-old staples of a Big Ten gameday, the product on the field could take on a different disposition.
But from a strictly physical standpoint, Magnuson and Gant believe the Wolverines should be ready to go by the time they take the field next month.
“As long as you’re practicing the fundamentals and techniques, you should be in good shape,” Gant said.
Added Magnuson: “I think with just a few weeks of training camp-like practice, those guys will be pretty ready to go play a full football game.”