Michigan State learns to roll with the punches in unorthodox football season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It didn’t play out like anyone expected, Mel Tucker included.

But nearly seven months after he became Michigan State’s head coach, roughly six months since he was supposed to start his first spring practice with the Spartans and a little more than a month after the Big Ten first opted to postpone its fall season, Tucker is set to get back on the field.

“I'm really excited about the season,” Tucker said on Thursday, a day after the season was resurrected. “I'm excited that our fans will get a chance to enjoy Spartan football again, even though they won't be in the stadium. They’ll still be able to support us and see what we have, and our plan is to put our best foot forward week in and week out.”

Running back Elijah Collins is one of Michigan State's top returning players.

That had been the plan all along for Tucker after he was named as Mark Dantonio’s replacement on Feb. 12. However, in a world dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, things started to veer off path fairly quickly and for the better part of the last six weeks, it appeared Tucker’s debut would have to wait until at least 2021.

Instead, the Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors reversed course, opting to kick off an eight-game season later next month.

Of course, to listen to Tucker is to believe that nothing was going to knock him off course. It’s hard to predict what comes next, Tucker insists, so it’s best just to roll with it. Adapt to the situation and move on.

“Uncertainty is part of the norm,” Tucker said, “and I believe you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And so we deal with it day-by-day as things come. We don't try to get into the hypotheticals of ‘What if this?’ or ‘What if that?’ Those scenarios, we take them as they come.”

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And that next scenario features a new era of Michigan State football ready to get back on the field.

After two more days of focus on conditioning with some positional work with 7-on-7 drills as well as walkthroughs and film work, an actual football practice is set to begin on Monday on Michigan State’s campus.

“They'll have Sunday off, and then Monday we will start with probably somewhat of a more normal football practice,” Tucker said, adding that the Spartans will slowly bring the players back to full-go, relying heavily on their medical and training staff. “We believe in using all of the exercise science that we have. We have people in place that monitor loads and use our Catapult GPS units and things like that.

“So we have a plan for player loads for week one. Starting next Monday, and then the following week, we'll increase the load, and then the next two weeks before a game week, we will be at probably a full, normal player load for practices. That will prepare us for a solid game-week preparation where our guys will be safe and ready to go.”

That preparation is all leading to Oct. 23 or 24 when Big Ten teams will begin the season. The schedule has yet to be released, so the Spartans aren’t certain of which team they’ll see first and where the game will be played.

When they do hit the field, there will be plenty of new starters on both sides of the ball. Whether or not a couple of veterans are back is also unclear.

Back in early August, senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and senior right tackle Jordan Reid opted out of the season over concerns surrounding the pandemic. Redshirt freshman linebacker Marcel Lewis made the same choice, but on Wednesday Lewis announced he had opted back in and would play this season.

Whether Panasiuk or Reid — freshman offensive lineman Justin Stevens also opted out — ultimately decide to play hasn’t been determined.

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“I don't have any updates today, but obviously, within the next few days, that will all shake out,” Tucker said. “If there's any opt-outs that should be settled here probably within the next few days or so and we'll know more. But my stance has not changed. We're going to support our players, regardless whether they opt in or they've opted out. Everyone has a different circumstance, and we respect that and we're supporting our players 100 percent, whatever they decide to do.”

Whoever ends up on the field for Michigan State, Tucker is confident they’ll be ready to play.

When the season was postponed, the Spartans quickly embarked on five weeks of conditioning, spending plenty of time in the weight room with strength coach Jason Novak.

Tucker believes it was important work and will have the Spartans ready when the pads go back on in less than two weeks.

“Our players have been working relentlessly since the postponement,” Tucker said. “We've gotten a good, solid, probably five weeks of running and lifting and we’re in better condition now than we were when we started camp previously before the postponement.

“So I'm just excited to get going, and just looking forward to getting back out on the grass.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau