They all took a knee at the end of their grueling workout, huddled around Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez – 65 sweating, dead-tired athletes in maize-and-blue jerseys.
Every one of them was a prospective walk-on, and yesterday’s scene at Oosterbaan Fieldhouse again made it clear the Wolverines have entered a new coaching era. The Michigan football open tryout began a tradition Rodriguez plans to continue every semester.
After stretches, the athletes ran agility drills where they had to shuffle, backpedal, sprint and run figure eights, switching between stations every five minutes. On the other side of the fieldhouse, kickers practiced field goals.
The offense and defense combined for position drills and one-on-ones. After the bulk of the practice, the athletes ran the 40-yard dash three times – most athletes were in the 5-second range, but a few 4.9’s and a 4.7 were recorded. The tryout ended with gassers, sprints across the width of the football field.
“We’re looking for pure toughness,” strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis said. “Some guys can get by with 100-percent attitude.”
The level of talent was understandably varied. Some athletes, like sophomore Val Gui, had never played high school football. Instead, he ran cross country and wrestled. He chose to try out as a defensive back because it was one of the only positions where he’d have a chance as a 5-foot-9 athlete with a small frame.
But freshman Tony Anderson contacted director of football operations Brad Labadie last semester about trying out. The Los Angeles native played football and ran track at Redondo Union High School, and has been working out at the CCRB four or five times a week to prepare for yesterday’s tryout. His standout performance made him look like one of the frontrunners for a walk-on defensive back position.
And sophomore Robert Thornbladh, who was a preferred walk-on last year but was removed from the team after an off-the-field incident, was looking for a second chance to make the team as a fullback.
Some of Thornbladh’s former teammates, including wide receiver Greg Mathews, quarterback Steve Threet and punter Zoltan Mesko, lounged on the pads behind one of the fieldhouse endzones and kept a running commentary on the performance of the walk-on candidates.
“Probably fun to see somebody else get pain delivered to them,” Rodriguez said. “They got pain delivered this morning at 6 (at the team’s workout). It’s probably human nature to watch someone else suffer, especially when they were running gassers there at the end. That’s probably the most enjoyable.”
Rodriguez said he went into the tryout looking for receivers, a position where the Wolverines lack players. But though the overall turnout was high, Rodriguez wasn’t impressed by the low number of linemen in attendance.
“That was a little disappointing,” he said. “Maybe there’s not that many big guys going to school here, I don’t know.”
Rodriguez said he plans to keep a few athletes from yesterday’s tryouts, and a list of players will be posted outside Schembechler Hall at noon today. The athletes will be integrated into the Michigan football workout program and may have the chance to stay on the team through spring practice.
After spring practice, walk-ons will be reevaluated and possibly invited back as either camp walk-ons – the NCAA allows 105 athletes at summer camp in August – or as one of about 20 school-start walk-ons, who will be added when the academic year begins.
“(Spring practice) is completely different,” linebackers coach Jay Hopson said. “(The tryout) is all about athleticism. Come spring practices, we find out who wants to hit somebody. And that’s what it’s all about.”