Former Michigan offensive lineman Rueben Riley has a lot of experience when it comes to going through an offseason and returning to campus ready for fall camp, but none of his returns were anything like what players are dealing with right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Slowly but surely players and coaches are returning to the facilities this month in preparation for voluntary summer workouts ahead of training camp. Riley didn't go through anything like this himself, but as a former player and current head coach, he knows what every football player, at various levels, is going through right now.
"I think everybody is chomping at the bit," he said. "Everybody is extremely eager to get back into doing football — to get back into doing life — just the normalcy of what a collegiate athlete anticipated doing when he signed up to play college football.
"So everyone is really eager but there's also still some figuring out what’s really going on. There’s a state of concern for a lot of players and a lot of families. Parents are asking, ‘Am I sending my son out here in these conditions where he’s with 100 other guys from different families? Am I exposing him to something?' Football is great and needed but it’s not worth dying.
"I think you have all of that to weigh as you make the decision to come back to school and participate. For some, are mom and dad going to let the kid come back and participate? It’s really all over the place as far as the emotions and what’s really going on in that building.
"Coaches can’t wait to coach, but at the same time, you’re one outbreak or one case from having to shut the program down."
The health and wellbeing of the student athletes is the most pressing and important issue, but there's obviously the football aspect of everything as well. Staying home for several months really throws a wrench into what every program is doing.
"Missing out on those 15 days of spring ball was huge from the standpoint of evaluating your players," Riley said. "There were going to be a handful of guys to come as freshmen to compete for a spot who didn’t get that opportunity at all.
"You still have to have so many practices of just getting guys back into the mode of working out and getting after it. You don’t want to risk injury by throwing guys right into the fire as soon as they’re back on campus. You have to make sure everybody’s body is ready to.
"At the same time, coaches can’t have enough practices fast enough. You missed so much time in the spring that coaches are ready to see what they have. They want to see what the depth chart looks like and find out who they can depend on. Missing that evaluation in the spring hurt so you’ll have to have all your eggs in the basket in terms of guys showing who they are in training camp. Some decisions are going to have to be made right away."
Part of those practices is going to include getting physically ready. Reestablishing a level of endurance, flexibility and overall strength is going to be a big challenge for some. Riley sees that as a massive undertaking for strength and conditioning coaches and, like everyone else, is curious how that will play out.
"I think it’s a huge challenge," Riley said. "To have the type of power, muscle endurance and explosion along the offensive and defensive lines, and football in general, takes a lot of work. Push ups and sit ups are not going to get you what you need to be a Division I offensive linemen. It’s hard to move people out of the way and that’s the name of the game for us — we’re people moves. Although push ups, sit ups and body squats can keep you tone, it’s a huge disadvantage to not be able to put weight on a bar and lift it and prepare your body to move people."
Everything is about balance right now. Balancing between getting guys together and working out, but doing so safely and with some level of social distancing still place. Jumping right back into football but at a pace that isn't going to result in injuries. There are a lot of new things for coaches to figure out during this unprecedented time.