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Strength coach working from afar to keep Bucs in shape

Joe Avento • May 16, 2020 at 7:30 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a series on the challenges schools and conferences face while preparing for college football season.

JOHNSON CITY — Preseason camp is always tough on college football players. The next one might be the toughest, says Al Johnson, the strength coach for the East Tennessee State football team.

For one, nobody knows when the season might happen because of the coronavirus pandemic. The players were sent home when ETSU closed the campus, and organized workouts and spring practice were canceled.

“Not being able to see them and train them, that’s the hard part,” Johnson said. “You hope the kids have enough character and work habits, that we’ve created the right culture. I think we have good kids who will be doing the right thing.”

If and when preseason camp begins, the players will know quickly whether they’ve stayed in shape. Johnson says his biggest challenge will be to figure out how hard to work the players after a summer with no organized team workouts.

“Just not knowing how much is enough or how much is too much, those are the big questions,” Johnson said. “Do we accelerate the process? Will we over-train them? Do we over-lift them, over-run them? For all the strength coaches and trainers, none of us have ever been here or done this.”

Coach Randy Sanders said this ETSU team needed spring practice more than any other, so Johnson’s efforts may be considered even more important now.

“We had a good eight-week session with them from late January until spring break,” Johnson said. “The kids really worked hard. You could sense a different mindset with them going into spring ball.”

Johnson said he’s keeping in contact with the players and offering voluntary workouts. Nothing can be mandatory at this point, per the NCAA, but every coach in America is hoping — if not demanding — that their players are working out.

“One thing I’ve done is to try to empower the leaders on the team to reach out to the players and communicate with them,” Johnson said. “We have group chats and texts with them.

“The biggest thing is it’s got to be completely voluntary. We can’t really enforce it because we’re not there. I send them a program of suggested lifting and running because they asked for it and want it.”

Johnson said he’s seen some of his players get pretty inventive in their workout efforts. Gyms were closed because of Gov. Bill Lee’s stay-at-home executive order, and some of the players without weights at their homes found ways to get by. Some built weight racks out of wood. Others lifted with bricks in backpacks and used gallon jugs as weights.

“It’s been pretty neat how creative they’ve been,” Johnson said. “We’ve got great kids. That’s one thing I’ve enjoyed being at East Tennessee State. We’ve got a lot of great kids and I think it’s getting better. Coach Sanders and his staff have been recruiting some really good athletes.”

Johnson said once he gets the word that the season will go on, whenever that might be, he’ll really spring into action.

“If we get a timeline, we can start tightening down,” he said. “Eight weeks out or 10 weeks out, then we know it’s time to get serious. One thing we know is we’re not going to have as much time as we need. We’ll be given a certain time line.

“You know how coaches are,” Johnson added. “There’s never enough time.”

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