'Focused' Mel Tucker: Michigan State will be ready to play — whenever that is possible
Mel Tucker hasn’t coached a single game at Michigan State.
In fact, he’s only had a handful of practices, and none of those in full pads.
But as the Spartans and the rest of the Big Ten adjust to the reality they will not be playing football this fall, one thing has become clear about the first-year head coach — almost nothing gets him off his game.
Get hired in mid-February, after the final signing period? No problem for Tucker.
Have your first spring practice wiped out because of COVID-19? He figures out a way to have his team ready to come back to campus in the summer.
Quarantine for two weeks, just before preseason camp opens? No big deal.
And now, as the Spartans embark on a six-week strength and conditioning program instead of preparing to take the field in three weeks, Tucker refuses to let any negativity seep in.
“I've been really excited to be here and I try to stay neutral in my emotions — try not to get too high, try not to get too low and just deal with what's happening at the moment,” Tucker said. “What is truth? What do we know now and what needs to be done in the future? So that's how I remain focused.”
That focus now for Michigan State — and most teams around the country outside of the SEC, ACC and Big 12 — is what comes next.
In the Big Ten, the plan is to try and play in the spring. It doesn’t come without it’s own set of potential problems and is far from a done deal, but it’s clearly something that has become a priority. There are plenty of obstacles, and working in enough down time for players before beginning preparations for the 2021 season is at the top of the list.
Tucker knows it’s the biggest factor in determining what a spring schedule might look like.
“We’ll just have to see because timing is everything and when that spring season may start and when it may end, along with when the next season may start,” Tucker said. “That's going to depend on how much recovery time our players will have, and we just don't know the answers to that.”
Whatever the schedule looks like, Tucker knows he’ll have a team and a coaching staff that will be ready to go, regardless of the hoops they’ve had to jump through over the past several months.
“Our guys are here to compete and play,” Tucker said. “We love to coach, we love to play. So whatever is next for us, whatever is presented to us, we'll be ready for that. There are a lot of capable, smart people at the conference level that are working on the plans for the spring. So whenever that is unveiled to us, we'll prepare for that and we'll be ready.”
Having the season kicked down the road to the spring might end up not being the worst thing for the Spartans. Failing to get a true spring session as well has having the summer conditioning programs truncated thanks to the pandemic had the Spartans playing from behind.
Add in the fact they had a two-week quarantine after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and the added time is welcomed.
“We're going to take advantage of the time that we have,” Tucker said. “We have time now to build that broad base of strength and conditioning. Our players are very excited about it and we have a great strength conditioning program. Coach (Jason) Novak has done a great job and when I visit with our players and ask about our strength conditioning program, they light up. They love what we're doing in our weight room.”
The weight room won’t be the only place Michigan State works on building its culture under Tucker. From how the players interact with their coaches, to attitudes in meetings and how they conduct themselves outside of the football building, Tucker wants everyone on the same page.
“It’s hustling on and off the field, shirts tucked in, shoes tied up, being punctual,” said Tucker, who added that it’s his hope all his players remain on campus throughout the semester. “It’s ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ All those things are part of how we operate day-to-day. When we're at the cafeteria, it’s ‘Yes, please,’ and ‘thank you.’ That's all part of culture. How were we studying tape, how we take notes in meetings, how we walk through attention to detail, organization, sense of urgency.
“Those are all things that can be worked on on a day-to-day basis, and we're doing that.”
Roster management will be another critical component to the next few weeks, as well.
There’s potential for scholarship limit expansions moving forward and there is always the possibility players could opt out of a spring season in preparation for the NFL Draft or to transfer. But Michigan State could see a change in another way.
Before the news came that the fall season was being postponed, four players opted out of playing – seniors Jacub Panasiuk and Jordan Reid, redshirt freshman Marcel Lewis and freshman Justin Stevens. There’s a chance now those players will end up playing in a spring season with Panasiuk, a starting defensive end, and Reid, the starting right tackle, the most important. Lewis, too, was expected to be pushing for playing time after appearing in three games last season as a true freshman.
“Those are new conversations,” Tucker said. “A lot of the players that were considering opting out are very, very excited about the program that we set forth currently with strength and conditioning to get our guys bigger, faster and stronger. … As time moves on we'll see what that looks like, but I anticipate full participation or nearly full participation from our players.
“I’m going to support those guys in whatever they decide to do. That's what I'm here to do is support them. As coaches we're here to teach, motivate and develop, and this is all part of a process.”