Erick All trained in Columbus at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gabby Ceritano/Daily. Buy this photo.

Erick All has always had the tools to be one of the nation’s top tight ends.

At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, he has the size of an offensive tackle and now appears to have the ball skills of a wide receiver. His athleticism allows him to stretch the field vertically in the passing game, while he uses his size to clear out big holes for tailbacks on running plays. But even as coaches praised All during his first two years on the Michigan football team, he struggled with drops.

During the Wolverines’ 33-7 win over Northwestern in October, however, All appeared to flip a switch. He set new career-highs with five catches and 34 receiving yards and flexed a solid rapport with junior quarterback Cade McNamara, who also doubles as his roommate. In many ways, it looked like All was on the precipice of figuring things out.

The next week, he doubled down.

With the whole nation watching Michigan’s top-10 showdown in East Lansing, All doubled his catch tally and nearly tripled his yardage mark from the previous week’s breakout performance. He finished with 10 receptions for 98 yards, single-handedly buoying the Wolverines’ passing attack at times.

Against Penn State, All’s Herculean effort in the late stages of the fourth quarter lifted Michigan to a signature road win. He beat the Nittany Lions’ secondary to the sideline after catching a crossing route in stride, sprinting through an ankle sprain for a 47-yard touchdown. As he stumbled onto the pylon for his first career score, his touchdown single-handedly kept the Wolverines’ championship hopes alive.

Despite missing the team’s Nov. 6 game against Indiana due to injury, All’s 30 catches through nine games are still the most on the team.

“The way he approaches things, because of his intensity, he gets better at everything incrementally,” Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh said Nov. 4. “… His habits are so good in terms of, he runs routes, the speed in which he practices, the extra work that he puts in, the desire to be really good.” 

For All, the second half of the 2021 season has been a revelation. A lightbulb moment. A productive stretch within a breakout season.

Call it what you will, but in reality, it’s the culmination of a long process that began in enemy territory about 18 months ago.

***

When Michigan’s game against Ohio State was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns last season, the 2-4 Wolverines were spared a trip to Columbus.

But it also robbed All and junior linebacker Joey Velazquez of a homecoming of sorts. Not at the Horseshoe, but at Lincoln Tower Park — a small, open-faced public field at the foot of the Buckeyes’ home stadium in Columbus. The duo trained there with Austen Rankin, the director of football operations at Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once the University canceled classes and in-person academic activities, players scrambled to flee Ann Arbor. The football facility shut its doors shortly after, forcing the Wolverines’ training staff to assemble home workout plans to keep athletes in shape with a fall season less than six months away. Ohio natives All and Velazequez returned to their home state to train and finish the semester remotely after the spring practice slate was wiped out.

That’s when All brought up the conversation about temporarily moving into the Velazquez family’s home in Columbus — a 90-minute drive from his hometown of Fairfield. The request was granted.

“They let me in during quarantine, and I stayed with his family,” All said last October. “Literally every time you would come downstairs, there was food on the table waiting for you. A nice, full-course meal. … So, hat’s off, that’s like my second family. I love them. Thank God for them.”

As the pandemic worsened, local Ohio guidelines shut down local gyms and public high schools — two popular training spots away from campus for college athletes. So Velazquez reached out to Rankin, who he’s worked with for multiple years. With Rankin’s usual facilities closed, he invited All and Velazquez to Lincoln Tower Park for an initial session at the end of April.

The idea of training at Lincoln Tower Park initially seemed like a good fit for everyone involved. It provided an accessible, central location for Rankin to hold his sessions, while it helped All and Velazquez avoid making long trips across the state to train together during the pandemic.

But when it came time for the first session, All and Velazquez balked.

They immediately noticed the scarlet and gray block ‘O’ staring back from the center of the turf. On all sides of the fenced field, they noticed Buckeye players in passing doing double-takes as All and Velazquez stretched.

“At first, we felt a little iffy, because you know, the rivalry,” All said. “It was like a little intramural soccer field. … We get there and there’s all these football players, all the Ohio State players there. We were like, ‘Well, the only way we get off the field is if they take us off the field.’ We paid money for this session, it’s not like we’re about to just leave because of what they think or the rivalry.”

Rankin has worked with Ohio State players and recruits, which has helped make a name for himself across the greater Columbus area. In the process, he amassed a loyal following of Buckeye players and fans. When Rankin posted behind-the-scenes videos of Velazquez and All’s first session on his Instagram story, his followers recognized them even without any maize and blue gear.

And, as one might expect, there was no shortage of displeasure in response.

“As soon as they saw a Michigan player on a field with the block ‘O,’ it was over,” Rankin told The Daily. “I think the fans kind of made it bigger than it was, which makes the rivalry what it is. In a rivalry of this magnitude, nobody is going to back down. That’s just how I view it. But to me, at the end of the day, it’s just another day of working out.”

***

As All and Velazquez returned to Lincoln Tower Park for sessions with Rankin over the next six weeks, they treated the backlash as outside noise. The adversity of training in enemy territory during a pandemic only brought them closer together while requiring a layer of focus they might not have needed in the friendly confines of Ann Arbor’s Glick Field House.

One of Rankin’s strengths as a trainer is his ability to coach all 11 positions on both sides of the ball. But by the end of Velazquez and All’s time training in Columbus, they were the ones helping each other through their position-specific drills.

“Even though they may be doing different drills, if one of them wasn’t having the best day, they were picking each other up,” Rankin said. “And that’s the main thing I noticed as a coach. … They’d be out there working and it was all about holding each other accountable — outside of me telling them what they needed to do right. It was more so them coaching themselves up, along with taking coaching from the drills and stuff like that.

“They were guys you could tell were close and had a family-type relationship to the point where one can get on the other without it being personal. That’s the main thing. And to me, that’s what shows you really love somebody.”

Ultimately, Velazquez and All’s battle-tested relationship became as valuable as the sessions themselves. The fact that it developed at the foot of the Horseshoe only made it stronger.

And now, All is reaping the benefits.