New Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker in 'get-to-know phase' with Spartans
East Lansing — There’s been a lot to do for Mel Tucker.
It’s been a busy time, but Tucker also has put a priority on learning what he has to work with less than three weeks before the Spartans begin spring practice.
“I'm still in the ‘get-to-know phase’ with the players,” Tucker said this week. “We're getting to know them, and they're getting to know us. When you're getting to know players — coming to a new situation — it's about building trust, day-in and day-out. Using every opportunity, every touch point, with a player, a student-athlete, to just let them know how you feel about them and let them know that you care, and let them know that you want what's best for them on and off the field.
“So, that's a process, and it's a delicate process. I feel like we're off to a good start so far.”
Tucker met with the team the day he took over for Mark Dantonio and has been able to check out the team during winter conditioning.
Most of the transition will come once spring practice begins March 17. That’s when Tucker and his staff — he has hired nine of 10 assistants — will have a better idea of what they’re dealing with.
“We'll be able to evaluate in the spring,” Tucker said. “It's going to be very important for us to install our base schemes on offense, defense, especially on things that we know we're going to do. At the same time, we’ll evaluate the guys that we have so we can go into the summer programs and say, ‘OK, this is what we think we can do with this group of guys right now.’
There are certainly some challenges on Michigan State’s current roster, with plenty of holes to fill. With all of the offensive problems over the past few seasons, the Spartans still feel good about some of the youth at skill positions like running back and receiver, as well as some positive signs shown late last season from a trio of freshman offensive linemen — J.D. Duplain, Nick Samac and Devontae Dobbs. The big question, of course, is at quarterback, where three-year starter Brian Lewerke is now at the NFL Combine and the Spartans determine if his successor is already on campus.
Defensive questions abound, as well, with end Kenny Willekes and tackle Raequan Williams off to the NFL as well as linebacker Joe Bachie and cornerback Josiah Scott. Having senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons provides the leadership the Spartans need, but headed into spring, Tucker wants to know as much as he can about his players.
“I want as much information as I can get on players,” Tucker said. “I think just gathering information is what it's all about so you can make informed decisions. I told all the players on my first day on the job here is that everyone's got a clean slate with me. Our mentality is going to be our earn-it, prove-it mentality. That's going to be our approach as coaches and players. I don't believe in self-imposed limitations. The sky's the limit for what we can do with our guys. I want our players to feel the same way.”
Understanding what each player brings is aided by the fact there will be some continuity in the staff. Tucker brought back Ron Burton to coach the defensive line while Mike Tressel is also on the defensive staff, though his specific role is yet to be determined as Tucker makes the call on a defensive coordinator.
Tucker also hired Harlon Barnett to coach defensive backs, a job he had at Michigan State from 2007-17 — he was also co-coordinator from 2015-17 — before leaving to be the defensive coordinator at Florida State the past two seasons.
By the time spring practice culminates in April with the Green and White game, Tucker wants to have a good idea of where everyone stands heading into the summer.
“It's important for us to go through the spring and know who can play football,” Tucker said. “Players play fastest when they know what to do. So, I want to know what a player can do when he is playing fast, and when he has not thinking too much initially. We will challenge our players from a scheme standpoint. You have to know, from a volume standpoint, what guys can handle.
“There is a process, and when we go into our summer program, I want to know who can do what. Who are our best players at each position? Who are the guys that we feel like we can really develop? Who are our guys that maybe need a position change, if any? Things like that. In order to do that, we have to be very strategic in how much we install in the spring just to make sure that we can get a pretty good picture of all of those things going into the summer. A big part of that is just planning and then experience in coming into new situations.”