As Georgia Tech trains in isolation, ‘no team has an advantage on us’

The unsung hero of Georgia Tech’s season – whenever it eventually takes place – might be the humble backpack.

As the Yellow Jackets, socially distanced and in most cases lacking access to weight-room equipment, try to hold onto the strength developed across months of grueling weight-room sessions, weighted-down knapsacks have become Tech strength-and-conditioning coach Lewis Caralla’s answer for barbells and squat racks.

“You take a survey of your house, and what are common items that people would probably have, and if they don’t have it, I’m sure they could find it,” he said.

Caralla’s suggestion for his players is to fill a backpack (or two) with 45 pounds – books, water bottles or whatever might be on hand – and wear it or hold it (or them) for different exercises. (For reference, a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds.)

“Those are not easy if anybody wants to try them, if you put enough weight in them,” linebacker David Curry said.

Caralla’s belief is that, if players follow his prescribed workouts, they’ll eventually return to campus with the same strength that they had achieved before the coronavirus pandemic sent them away from campus in March.

“I try to just tell them to have about a 45-pound backpack and possibly two of them,” he said. “Because a lot of the workouts right now, if you just have a 45-pound backpack, I take care of the rest. You don’t need much else.”

Caralla’s role in the Jackets’ extended offseason goes far deeper than workout planner, though. By NCAA rules instituted for the shutdown of its member schools’ sports programs, workouts are not mandatory. Further, being physically isolated, there are no teammates to engage in a tug-of-war or to encourage them through a squat set. If a player takes two hours to do a workout meant to be completed in an hour, or dials back on the reps, no one’s the wiser.

In this environment, the teams that are most driven and have the highest player-to-player accountability will return to campus with the athletes who have retained the most strength-and-conditioning base and will be most prepared to start the season.

“There’s no excuse,” Curry said. “We may not have weights, but there’s different stuff that we can do to increase size and increase speed and all that stuff.”

Caralla’s belief is that coach Geoff Collins’ team stands to profit amid this decentralization because of its culture and connection, which Caralla himself helped create.

“I think it’s a huge opportunity,” Caralla told the AJC. “I look at it with optimism. No team has an advantage on us. No facility’s better, no nutrition budget’s better. Nothing. So we’ve got a full advantage, and we are very proactive about it, constantly engaging with our players.”

Caralla was among Collins’ first hires in December 2018, arriving from Buffalo of the MAC. (He had worked at Tech as an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach in 2010-11.) His expertise, passion and relentlessly upbeat personality have yielded strength gains and won him the loyalty from across the roster.

Caralla sends the team workouts every week along with a daily message of motivation, many of which are posted to Twitter. The influence that he built up in a year has enabled him to hold sway.

“We’re not with him, but it’s almost like we still are because he’s giving us his daily message, and we’re texting with him every day, and he’s keeping up with us,” Curry said. “We’re making the best out of it.”

The workouts incorporate strength, conditioning, speed, agility and position-specific drills. Aside from his navy Georgia Tech backpack, Caralla has demonstrated exercises using a chair, a tree trunk and picnic tables and one’s own body weight.

“It’s a good hour,” Caralla said of the strength workouts. “I give them a lot of reps because I know there’s no weight. If they’re really doing it, they’re very sore, because it’s a lot.”

Curry has an advantage in having some weight equipment at his family’s home in Buford, as well as the use of a neighbor’s small turf field to use for agility drills. He believes his strength has held.

“You can use the streets (for speed workouts), for all it matters,” he said. “But I will definitely be back like before I left and hopefully better.”

Being included on each position group’s text chains has permitted Caralla an insight into the sort of camaraderie and player-to-player accountability that has connected the Jackets at a time of physical isolation.

Caralla can tell you, for instance, that one of the defensive tackles drew up and shared a daily schedule with his fellow linemates – when to wake up, eat, study and work out, among other tasks. The offensive linemen text photos of themselves making their beds every morning.

“It’s just a little detail that kind of sets the tone for their day, and they get going,” he said.

It’s communication like this – as well as texts he gets from individual players – that lead Caralla to believe that, even though workouts are not mandatory, his players are sticking to his regimen and keeping tabs on one another.

“I don’t know if they’re following my exact plan, but I do know they’re working because the group texts alone are pretty much holding people accountable,” he said. “I just think they would feel awkward if they weren’t.”

Curry, a team captain for the 2019 season, is among the standard setters. He said that he talks with all of the other linebackers daily and reaches out to younger players in different position groups.

“You just stay connected, trying to act like we’re there when we’re not there,” Curry said.

As is the case with many, Caralla has enjoyed the social-distancing life. He has been sheltered at his East Cobb home with wife Lori and children Marshall (6), Ali (4) and Ava (nine months). Caralla became a minor social-media star with a series of tweets in which he used his children as giggling weightlifting implements, including one in which he held all three as he did lunges in a parking lot.

“I couldn’t believe (the popularity of the tweets),” he said. “I blame it on not having any content right now.”

Ava is learning to walk, Ali just learned to ride her bike and Marshall and his dad compete multiple times daily in basketball games up to 50.

“So a lot of things that I wouldn’t have caught if everything was just back to normal,” he said.

But Caralla does miss his players and the work.

“I do know this,” he said. “If this is how it’s going to be, we have the advantage because we’re good at staying in touch and engaging with our players in a positive way.”