Michigan State will 'hit the field running' as camp opens after virus setbacks
To say his first six months on the job have been challenging would be a fairly apt way to describe life for Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker.
From adapting to working at home with his dogs invading his workspace to taking over a program with limited ability to connect with his players, it’s been a trying time for Tucker, who was hired in mid-February to replace Mark Dantonio, the winningest coach in program history.
Still, as Michigan State prepares to open preseason camp on Friday, Tucker is taking it all in stride and focusing on the positives he’s encountered over the last several months as COVID-19 wiped out the sporting world and shut down the Spartans’ spring practice before it could begin.
“Very unique experience,” Tucker said Thursday, describing what life has been like. “It’s not something that I anticipated, not something that any of us anticipated, and I think it'd be a good couple of chapters in a book one day. It's been challenging but it's been fun, just learning new ways to communicate, learning new ways out of necessity to connect with your players and also with coaches that I haven't worked with before. And working from home, making sure that I'm professional coming from the waist up and maybe a pair of PJ's on the waist down, that's been new. And dealing with my two dogs coming in and out of my workspace has been a unique experience.”
While the Spartans quickly figured out how to navigate a world where they were isolated – “We’ve become Zoom experts,” Tucker said – to bide the time until they were allowed to return to campus, it didn’t take long for another curveball to come.
Just more than a month after players reported to campus for voluntary workouts, positive COVID-19 tests for a pair of staffers led to 14 days of quarantine for the entire program. That isolation ended on Wednesday.
However, Tucker insists none of it will dampen the enthusiasm when the Spartans hit the field in the morning.
“We're going to hit the field running,” said Tucker, who said the focus throughout most of the off-season Zoom sessions has been on learning new schemes and terminology. “That's how we're going to do it. We hit that field everyone's gonna be up-tempo and we'll have a lot of energy … we'll make sure players give great effort.
“I feel like they are poised and ready to start camp on Friday and hit the ground running. Our guys do have very good knowledge of our schemes, so I feel like we should be able to execute on day one.”
While preseason camp is starting at roughly the same time as it would in past seasons, there’s no getting around the fact things have changed. The two-week quarantine was a stark reminder for the Spartans, but once they hit the field, things will look different as well.
Close attention will be paid to how the players are physically handling the workload as they ease their way back to a full practice, all while implementing new safety measures that have been dictated by the training and medical staffs.
“Our first four practices will be modified practices,” Tucker said. “Because of the time off that we've had coming out of quarantine, there'll be a lot of walkthroughs mixed in with breaks and rest time extend throughout practice. We do have a target load that we want each player to hit, and we're going to monitor that throughout practice. We have those loads prescribed for each practice to continually, gradually build our players up so that we can, at some point, go full-go, go full speed, tackle and scrimmage and create game-like situations so we can be prepared for the game.
“But initially our first few practices will look a little differently than what they would in the past.”
Once the focus starts to be on the game itself, there are plenty of questions looming. Regardless of whether the schedule released by the Big Ten on Wednesday goes off without a hitch, Tucker and his staff will be putting in plenty of time deciding who gets on the field and who doesn’t.
From quarterback to multiple positions on defense, the Spartans will have a different look and Tucker insists it’s an open competition.
“Everyone here is going to get a fair shake,” Tucker said, reiterating what he emphasized when he was hired after one season at Colorado. “I told them when I got here that there's a clean slate for every player. It doesn't matter what you've done in the past, everyone starts from ground zero. So, obviously when you start practicing, you have to have organization, and so guys are gonna be in groups but instead of it being a depth chart I'm going to call it a rep chart. It's going to be fluid, ‘This is how we're going to rep today.’ And it will change, day-to-day and will also change within a practice and every drill that we do, an individual drill or a group drill or a team drill or scrimmage.
“Everything that we do will be filmed and graded by the coaches and every player will get a grade on every drill. We're gonna work really hard to teach, motivate and develop our guys, and as we see our guys more and more and we're able to evaluate them more, we’ll be able to create a depth chart.”
The Spartans have less than a month to figure out that depth chart, led by determining who starts at quarterback. It’s a crowded battle as junior Rocky Lombardi, sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Peyton Thorne all battle it out.
But even with the tight schedule, Tucker is confident the Spartans will be ready for the 10-game conference season.
“What's gonna be important is what we do with the reps that we get moving forward,” Tucker said. “And I believe that we have enough time to get our players, our quarterbacks and everyone else the reps that they need to put their best foot forward to compete for jobs and be prepared for the season.
“Our quarterback situation is going to shake out. I feel good about the guys that we have competing and I'm looking forward to seeing em play.”