Photo by Chad Wilson
Florida Football

Weathering the storm: Gators continuing to train despite uncertain future

March 29, 2020
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FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
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Football games and practices being put in jeopardy is nothing new to Gators players, coaches and fans.

The season opener was canceled due to a severe thunderstorm in 2014, and the 2017 home opener was washed away by Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Matthew caused the 2016 meeting with LSU to controversially be moved to Baton Rouge. Prior to the opening of UF’s indoor practice facility in 2015, inclement weather frequently interrupted practices.

Still, this situation is different. The Orange and Blue Game has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The players have been locked out of the facilities, expect for the academic building and the training room.

“I imagine it’s difficult for him as it is for all the other guys,” Chad Wilson said of his son Marco Wilson, a redshirt junior defensive back. “They love football, so they’d love to be doing some football activities right now with their teammates, but, unfortunately, that’s not possible.”

The uncertainty is what makes this situation different than weather-related cancellations. With hurricanes, the Gators and their fans can track the storms thanks to multi-million-dollar satellites. Barring catastrophic damage, you know that life will return to normal in about a week.

Not so much with the coronavirus. There’s no way of knowing when this worldwide lock-down will end. Even the most knowledgeable of medical experts seem uncertain. This could all blow over in a month, and the Gators’ off season program will resume. Or, it could drag into the summer and fall and leave the 2020 season in jeopardy.

So, the Gators are faced with the unenviable task of preparing for a season, that might not happen, by themselves.

What that looks like varies on a player-to-player basis. Most of the players don’t have weights or other workout equipment at their homes. Other players have dumbbells but not much else. Then there are a few players that almost have a complete gymnasium in their homes.

To help even the playing field and give everyone a chance to maintain their strength, Director of Football Strength and Conditioning Nick Savage sent each of the players a general workout blueprint that was created with the assumption that the players only had access to open space and no equipment. The workout plan includes links to videos of members of the strength staff demonstrating how to do each activity.

“Everything they’re going to be encountered with on a football field, I need to make sure we take into account in terms of programming, and that’s from flexibility, mobility, strength training, conditioning, skill acquisition – which is their football skill, predominantly their position itself,” Savage said.

“So, we kind of gave them a blueprint of what they need to get done each day and then obviously each week. Some things are done daily. Other things are done once a week, sometimes twice a week. It’s dependent on the week and where they’re at. Everything that they would be expected to do on campus for the most part, physically speaking, I’m expecting them to do to some shape or form at their house.”

Some of the players have gotten creative in finding household items that they can use as weights for their workouts, Savage said. Some have even used family members and pets.

For those players that do have access to equipment, Savage works with them to design individualized workouts to take advantage of the resources and get the most out of the workouts, he said.

Savage sends out a text message to the entire team every day with an inspirational saying or a goal for the day and calls or FaceTime’s one or two position groups. By the end of the week, he’s talked to everyone. His assistants also check in with the players regularly.

Ultimately, the onus is on the players to get the job done. They still have to take initiative and put in the effort to get stronger, as the strength staff has no way of making sure they complete their workouts. In some ways, this lockout will be the perfect test of the “buy-in” that coaches talk so often about.

Perhaps the Gator best equipped to handle an off season away from campus is Wilson. He’s back home in Fort Lauderdale training with his brother, Quincy Wilson, who plays for the Indianapolis Colts, and Chad, a high school coach who played defensive back at Miami in the 1990s.

“Marco’s pretty diligent about knowing what he needs to do to prepare for a season,” Chad Wilson said. “He’s also with his brother, who’s preparing for an NFL season, and he’s got his dad who also trains. So, there’s no way away from the training.”

Marco and Quincy run together, do workouts in the garage and work on their coverage techniques together, he said. The focuses are the same now as they’ve always been – footwork, press coverage techniques and staying strong and fast. They typically spend about 2-3 hours per day on football-related activities.

Even though it’s uncertain when the players will be allowed back into the team facilities, Wilson’s preparation remains unchanged. It just might go on for longer than usual.

“Just preparing as if the season’s going to start as normal,” Chad Wilson said. “There hasn’t been any discussion seriously about anything other than that happening, and, should it get pushed back, you just train longer.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is redshirt junior tight end Kemore Gamble. He’s one of the few players who have elected to remain in Gainesville. He trains for about an hour per day at a nearby field, according to his mother, Keiva Rodriguez.

Some of his workout activities include running, lifting and push ups, she said. Gamble recently tweeted a video of himself balancing on an exercise ball with his knees while catching a ball repeatedly. One of his main objectives this off season is to improve his speed, which he is accomplishing by doing sprints and timing himself.

“He’s very motivated, and he’s very eager in his practices that he’s doing,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been very into it from what I can see. He’s very into it.”

Social distancing recommendations aren’t just affecting current players. Class of 2020 cornerback signee Avery Helm would normally be working out at Fort Bend Marshall (Texas) High School and running on the track team. Instead, his school is closed, and he must find alternative ways to stay in shape and prepare for his summer enrollment at UF.

Helm and some of his track teammates get together every day at noon and run until 2, his father, also named Avery Helm, said. Three times a week, he meets with Jacksonville Jaguars nickelback D.J. Hayden, who’s from nearby Houston and serves as something of a personal trainer for him. They work on “muscle memory stuff” and defensive back drills.

If there’s a bright spot to all of this, it’s that Helm’s enrollment at UF might get bumped up to Summer A instead of Summer B, his father said. Originally, his last official day of high school would’ve been in late May, after the beginning of the Summer A term at UF. However, with the school closures, there’s a chance that he could officially graduate a little earlier and be eligible to enroll for Summer A. Of course, this is a moot point if the players are still locked out of the facilities then.

When Helm officially visited Florida in January, Dan Mullen told him to be in shape, be flexible and be ready to go as soon as he gets on campus because he’s going to lift more weights than he ever has before, the father said.

“He’s preparing as if the word came out, he’d go at the beginning of May,” he said. “He’s getting prepared, getting his body and mind right. So, he’s attacking it like, ‘Hey, it can be anytime.’”

One of the common adages in college football is that championship teams are built during the offseason. If that’s going to be the case with the 2020 Gators, they’ll have to do so hundreds of miles apart with no coach supervision.

“A lot of it is credit toward Coach Mullen and how he’s built the program because guys know they’ve created routines and habits in the building that now at this point need to remain the same and still be in the same fashion even though they’re outside the building,” Savage said. “I think guys have really bought into that.”

Now they need to remain bought-in for the long – and unforeseeable – road ahead.

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