Whenever the Big Ten decides to resume its season, Michigan will be ready.
That was the overwhelming consensus among players who attended Saturday’s “We want to play” protest at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines haven’t stopped practicing — although practices have been non-contact, without pads — and according to junior offensive tackle Ryan Hayes, Jim Harbaugh has used rumors of a mid-October start to motivate players to stay ready. While the exact amount of time the players would need varies depending on who you ask, all of them felt it wouldn’t take long.
“If they told us we had a Sunday game, we’d be ready tomorrow,” senior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey said at the protest. “We’ve been going at it for as long as we can. Mentally I think our team is sharper than ever, physically we’re probably more in shape than ever because we’ve been training for so long. I was really proud of the whole team the way they came back from quarantine in shape and ready to go, so I'm confident we would be ready tomorrow.”
Fifth-year senior defensive lineman Carlo Kemp agreed, saying that the team would’ve been ready to play Saturday if they’d had a game — despite the fact that Kemp, who missed the Citrus Bowl with an injury, hasn’t been in pads since November.
Harbaugh and junior defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson didn’t have quite as accelerated of a timeline, but both said that all it would take was two weeks in pads for the team to be ready.
“We’re gonna be ready to play a game in two weeks,” Harbaugh said. “Get the pads on and our guys have trained without a pause since June 15. So that’s our position. We’re ready to play as soon as we possibly can play.”
Michigan’s spring season ended before it could start and the Big Ten has not yet allowed for padded practice. For some players, it’s been nearly a year since they were last in pads. That could seem like a disadvantage in getting back to the field, but there are some silver linings for the players. It’s given them more time to learn the playbook and focus on technique, which could prove useful in the future.
“It’s been really nice because we can start working on our footwork and hands really well, so once we do put the pads on we’ll definitely have more technique down,” Hayes said Thursday on Zoom. “So that’s been one positive about it.”
Chris Evans returns
Chris Evans is in a unique situation. The fifth-year senior running back was suspended for academic reasons before spring practice in 2019 and was only cleared to return for the Wolverines’ bowl practices in December.
Since then, Michigan got a new offensive coordinator in Josh Gattis and two younger running backs have emerged in Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins. It was already a long road back for Evans, and the pandemic has only made it longer.
“Just trusting in the process, just getting ready to play, day in and day out,” Evans said at the protest. “It’s gonna be tough, me being out, not being able to play football since ‘18, but I’ll be ready to go when the time comes.”
Evans said he attended the protest because, “I love football and I want to play. It’s best for our team right now.”
He described Gattis’ offense as faster and more hands-on but also easier to learn because of the hand signals and boards. Evans also said the offensive line and running backs room were both “looking good.”
Some upperclassmen have decided to opt out of whatever potential season there is to focus on the NFL Draft. Evans hasn’t made a choice yet on that front.
“I haven’t decided,” Evans said. “I don’t know what’s going on yet. All I’m focused on is whenever they say we play, be ready.”
Practicing in a pandemic
In fighting for a season, Harbaugh has locked onto a particular refrain: Since June 15, the football program has conducted over 800 tests, and all have been negative.
Michigan’s lack of positive tests doesn’t necessarily mean that playing another Big Ten team would be as safe — Maryland and Iowa have both shut down practice after widespread outbreaks on athletic teams in the past week. But clearly, the Wolverines’ protocols are working.
Players must wear a mask and undergo a temperature check to enter the building for practice or a meeting. They’re also discouraged from leaving their homes for anything other than class or practice.
“Don’t go out, keep wearing a mask, practice social distancing,” Hutchinson said. “All the same rules apply. Obviously it gets a little more difficult when most students get there because you have that aspect of it but I think our guys have been doing a good job staying away from other people and social distancing on their own.”
There’s an obvious source of motivation for Michigan: The fewer cases it has, the more likely the players are to be able to play. According to Kemp, the motivation to avoid testing positive has led players to avoid activities they would normally do, such as going boating on the weekends.
Beginning in June, the team built a culture of distancing based on the mindset that they wanted to play, and that if they didn’t help create an environment where it was safe to do so, the season would be called off. Clearly, based on the Wolverines’ test numbers, it’s worked.
“We go from the facility to our houses and back to football, and that was a true testament to everything we believed in and what we were trying to accomplish,” Kemp said. “And we knew that for us to play football, this is what we’ve gotta do, and guys bought into that and they’re still buying into it because at any point we’re hopeful that the season could come up, a game could come up, something. And being able to just keep that discipline is a testament to that character.”