Michigan players trying to 'keep their minds on football' even if they never play in 2020

Michigan football's Nick Eubanks vividly remembers the day his college football season was postponed.

He recalls walking into Schembechler Hall last Tuesday and feeling "like something was off." Then head coach Jim Harbaugh arrived and broke the news to the team: the Big Ten was pushing back all fall sports.

At the time, Michigan football was just a few days into fall camp; a revamped, conference-only schedule had been released the previous week, exciting players and coaches. But the postponement quickly crushed all of that excitement, devastating Eubanks and his teammates.

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"It was a real dark day," Eubanks recalled Wednesday during a call with local reporters. "It was a whole bunch of mixed emotions. Some of the players were crying, some players (were) thinking, 'What’s next?' What’s the story for them?"

Eubanks and the rest of his teammates are still grappling with the Big Ten's decision and what it could mean for their football careers. They don't know when they will play again, and several players (including Eubanks) must decide if they will return for the next season or leave for the NFL draft.

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It's a difficult and unenviable position that Eubanks and his teammates find themselves in. And right now, they've discovered that the best way to deal with that stress is to concentrate on football — even if the date of their next game remains unknown.

“The goal is just to get everybody in there and be able to practice or to work out," Eubanks said. "I think everybody has been going in there and doing everything they could just to keep coming to football, keeping their heads up. It’s up to older guys and some of the juniors and seniors such as Joe Milton to keep guys' heads up in terms of not feeling bad about themselves."

When the season was initially postponed last Tuesday, the team halted practices but quickly reversed course upon learning that it could still use the 20 hours allotted per week by the NCAA. On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council implemented new rules for schools whose football seasons were postponed to the spring, allowing those programs to participate in up to 12 countable hours of activities per week (with two required days off) starting Aug. 24.

Michigan football players practice on campus in Ann Arbor, Tuesday, August 11, 2020 during a voluntary workout, following the cancellation of the Big Ten fall season.
Michigan football players practice on campus in Ann Arbor, Tuesday, August 11, 2020 during a voluntary workout, following the cancellation of the Big Ten fall season.

"No more than five of those hours can be skill instruction, during which footballs, helmets and spider pads can be used," the statement read. "No contact would be allowed, but strength and conditioning, team, position and individual meetings and film review would be allowed within the 12-hour weekly limit. A four-hour daily limit on athletics activities is included."

So far, Michigan has encouraged players to participate in workouts and team activities such as learning the playbook or doing position work with the coaching staff.

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“Coach Harbaugh told me, at this point right now, we’re just getting better at football," Eubanks said. "Doing things that will help us in the long run. Just doing things that keep their minds on football. Or if they can’t get away, Schembechler Hall is a place we go to get your mind accustomed to football. So that’s how we’ve been on it, coming in every other day and doing that.”

According to Eubanks, he recently met with Harbaugh to discuss how the fifth-year senior could cope with the postponement. Harbaugh's advice: Find something to improve, because "there's always something to get better at."

“He’s been in my ear constantly, along with (tight ends) coach (Sherrone) Moore, just being able to keep me going as far as working out," Eubanks said. "So has (strength-and-conditioning) coach (Ben Herbert) and his lifting staff, just being able to come in and get a lift in and keep my body up.

"Everything in some way, shape or form is gonna continue. Football’s gonna continue. So you can’t sit yourself back a couple of weeks from now and lose focus on what’s going on.”

Other veterans like fifth-year senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp have advised younger players to take full advantage of the team's workouts and practices. Kemp says the early returns from the freshman class have been promising.

"They bought into our whole culture, our system that we do here," he said. “These guys just want to learn. There are so many players in this freshman class that are going to be very good players for Michigan, probably even early on."

Kemp acknowledged that it would be "weird" to watch from his couch as other conferences like the SEC, Big 12 and ACC play this fall. But he and his teammates are still determined to make the best of their situation.

"I think one of the worst things to do would be not to do anything," Kemp said. "And that’s something that we’re not doing here at Michigan. We’re trying to keep things as routine as possible. They might be able to play games, but that’s just what they do on Saturday. We’re still able to improve our craft, work on our plays, work on our skills.

"You might not be televised on Saturdays, you might not be able to play in games, but right now, you have a whole opportunity for these next couple months to just improve without having to hit anybody or put real wear and tear on your body. At some point, there’s got to be a season — there will be a season — and if we build on this stuff, we’ll be a really well-prepared team when that time comes.”

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football players making the most of Big Ten season postponement