When Josh Ross typed “Big Ten” into Twitter’s search bar Wednesday morning, it showed the senior linebacker everything he wanted to know.
In five weeks, he would be playing football.
“We were so excited hearing that news,” Ross said. “Finally! That’s how I was feeling, ‘Finally!’ We’ve been putting so much work in preparing and it’s just a blessing we get to play this fall.”
Since the announcement, that’s been the prevailing feeling among the Michigan football team, which hasn’t stopped practicing since returning to campus in June. The Wolverines have made it a point to stay ready to play.
Hearing the news changed the tenor of Michigan’s practice on Wednesday. The intensity was higher. The adrenaline, too. Football was back.
Well, with just a few changes.
The Big Ten announced that it would not allow general ticket sales for the 2020 season, with the only potential recipients being families of players and staff. Michigan president Mark Schlissel confirmed Thursday that there would be no fans in the stands at Michigan Stadium. But at this point, the Wolverines don’t care how many fans there are as long as it means they get to play football.
“At the end of the day I just want to play,” Ross said. “Regardless of if there’s people in the stands, we can be playing in Schembechler (Hall). I just want to play at the end of the day. It might be a little weird, but it don’t matter, we wanna go out there and play and hit.”
Another difference this year is part of what enabled the Big Ten’s return — a strict set of protocols. Among them is a rule that if at least 5% of a team’s tests are positive and 7.5% of the team population tests positive in a seven-day period, that team must shut down practice for seven days. Additionally, any player who tests positive can only return after a minimum of 21 days post-diagnosis, all in a nine-week schedule with no bye weeks. Although the protocols are strict, Michigan is prepared to meet them. After all, the Wolverines have already gone three months without a positive test thanks to strong enforcement. The new thresholds add an additional incentive to comply with social distancing requirements.
“When they said that, I’m not leaving the house unless I’m at (Schembechler),” Ross said. “I’m not leaving, I’m not going anywhere. Of course if I got class, but other than that, I’m in my apartment.”
Several notable players — wide receiver Nico Collins, cornerback Ambry Thomas and offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield — have already declared for the draft, though Thomas indicated on Big Ten Radio on Thursday that he may be able to return. But many 2019 starters are back. Senior defensive lineman Kwity Paye expressed his intention to play in 2020 on Twitter.
And fifth-year senior running back Chris Evans is returning from suspension.
Even with several losses on the offensive side — including all five starting offensive linemen, Collins and fellow receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black — the returning players on that side of the ball are steadfast in their confidence that they’ll be ready to go. Among those waiting in the wings are junior quarterback Joe Milton, presumed to be the starter, and wide receivers Giles Jackson, Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil, who all saw time at the position in 2019.
“I wouldn’t say it really feels different,” Jackson said. “We’re rolling on offense. It doesn’t feel like we’ve really missed a beat, honestly. If you just look out there, yeah, there’s new people out there but you can’t tell. We look good.”
For now, the next step for Michigan is getting in pads, a step previously not allowed by the Big Ten. Ross emphasized how much he’s missed padded practice, noting the tenacity of hitting another player. But there’s further significance, too: Each day the players spend in pads will be one day closer to the return of games.