It’s been 14 months since he last felt the smack of shoulder pad against shoulder pad, and Karl Mofor is ready to have his memory jogged.
“I’m just waiting to see if I still know what it feels like to get hit, take a hit, deliver a hit,” Mofor, a senior running back on the UAlbany football team, said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters. “I’m very excited for it.”
Like the rest of his teammates, Mofor has been sidelined since UAlbany’s loss to Montana State on Dec. 7, 2019, ending the Great Danes’ season in the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs. Last year’s spring workouts were canceled because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the fall season was postponed until the spring and the program’s fall workouts were disrupted by multiple pandemic-related pauses that affected the entire UAlbany athletic department.
And that’s finally about to change.
UAlbany’s full preseason camp opens Thursday, with four weeks of preparation in store for the Great Danes before they kick off their six-game CAA spring season on March 5 at New Hampshire.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” redshirt senior linebacker Levi Metheny said. “It’s been over a year since we’ve put the pads on. Coming out [Thursday] and starting practice, I’m really looking forward to this go at it.”
Head coach Greg Gattuso said the Great Danes won’t be going full bore from the starting gun. The opening two days of practice will be helmets-only, with shoulder pads added in following that for two more days.
On Tuesday, UAlbany will be in full pads for the first time and start “bumping around,” but things won’t be moving at too frantic and intense a pace.
“We will ease into this,” Gattuso said. “We’re very aware that these guys haven’t played football in a long time.”
More important than anything else, Gattuso said, is that the Great Danes come out of their opening days of practice healthy.
The head coach’s biggest concern is an issue that he said plagued many of the teams he talked to that played college football this fall: Players being vulnerable to soft-tissue injuries — hamstrings, hips and the like — after being away from intense play for such a long time.
Gattuso said he’s confident in his program’s plan to keep a limit on contact and reduce some of the time the team is on the field while still ramping up for a rapidly approaching season.
“It’s been a while,” he said, “there’s no doubt. That’s a concern, and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s really critical that we start as cautiously as we can, but yet still playing football and getting better at what we need to improve in.”
In some ways, Gattuso said, the Great Danes actually enter training camp in a slightly better position than they normally would — at least, on a mental level.
UAlbany started conditioning workouts and walkthroughs two weeks ago, giving the team a chance to head into its winter camp with its schemes already installed on offense, defense and special teams.
Of course, Metheny said, there are bound to be a few mistakes along the way.
“We’re all going to be a little rusty,” the 2019 second-team All-CAA linebacker said. “But, as long as we’re flying around, energy’s high, I don’t think we’re going to have an issue. We’re all really, really excited about the season.”
Gattuso estimated that about 85% of the team came back in “really good shape, considering the circumstance.”
Among the biggest challenges will be developing chemistry between the team’s veteran core and its raft of newcomers, something that couldn’t develop through Zoom and other long-distance communication as well as it would under the traditional open-door policy Gattuso and his staff have with their players.
It’ll fall heavily on the team’s leadership group — a collection of 10 or 12 players, including Mofor, Metheny, senior defensive back Tyler Carswell and redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Kobe Thomas — to help foster that environment moving forward.
“Those older guys,” Gattuso said, “it’s very critical that they’re on board with everything you’re doing, and I think they are.”
The Great Danes’ last season was one of the best in program history, with Mofor and quarterback Jeff Undercuffler leading a record-setting offense that carried UAlbany to a 9-5 record and its first-ever FCS playoff victory.
Getting back out to continue that work is a relief, Mofor said.
“I know football’s a getaway for a lot of people, and I know it is for me,” said the senior running back, who put up 1,290 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019. “It just feels good to get back on the field and do what I love to do.”
Of course, that doesn’t make the reality of a football season in the spring seem any more ordinary.
“It seems weird to say, ‘We have a game March 5,’ to me,” Gattuso said.
“But,” he added, “I’m getting there.”