Mel Tucker 'not messing around' in first practice of Michigan State restart

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

When Michigan State found out there was going to be a football season this fall, it had to do some quick tinkering.

In his first season as head coach, Mel Tucker has already done his share of adjusting on the fly, so shifting from conditioning to a more typical football practice was no problem. For the Spartans, that “first” practice came on Monday.

And it was clear, right out of the gate, that this was a new day.

“It was supposed to be a little bit of a light practice but there was a high tempo,” junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “Coach Tuck is not messing around now, man. He is getting us ready to go. He's motivated, we're motivated so it was a good practice. Everybody's flying around and really excited to see what we got.”

Rocky Lombardi

It’s hardly an indictment of how practices were under former coach Mark Dantonio. Those hardly lacked in intensity.

But with almost an entirely new staff, there’s a whole bunch of coaches trying to establish a different culture and an entire roster of players looking to stand out.

“You can really feel the energy out there,” senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “Everybody wants to be on film, being talked about. Whenever you look to your right or left there is a coach out there yelling with some type of excitement. He's either yelling that somebody just made a play or he's yelling at somebody for making a mistake, one of the two. But it’s definitely the excitement. The new voices, the new faces, just all of that combined. You don't really know what to expect, but you know it's gonna be exciting.”

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It’s the sort of intensity Tucker has been determined to bring to a program many feel are in the midst of a substantial rebuild after back-to-back seven-win seasons and five years removed from truly being a Big Ten contender, the 10-win season of 2017 being the only one where there was even a shot.

But the cancellation of spring practice followed by a stunted off-season, a postponed regular season and the Big Ten’s ultimate reversal to play games this fall — Michigan State opens Oct. 24 at home against Rutgers — has made it tough for Tucker to truly begin to put his stamp on the program.

According to the players, he’s hardly easing into it.

Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons

“He’s a 10, and probably plus some,” Simmons said, laughing when he was asked to rate Tucker’s intensity on Monday. “He came out with his whistle wet and he was ready to go. He was blowing that whistle every chance he got today. So, he was ready, no ifs, ands or buts about it. When he hit the sidelines it was, ‘Have your shirts tucked in. No razzle dazzle, none of that extra stuff, and be ready to go. Let's bring excitement and run to the ball.’ He’s holding everybody accountable, like every single person. Coaches have to run to the ball just like the players do.

“It's insane, but practice is fast. Like, it's really fast. The tempo, I don't know if there’s a point where we're not running. I mean, if we're not running, we're standing there in between plays or in between a period, because we don't have to go anywhere. We’re always running somewhere on the jog, and he's on top of us, too. He makes us go back if guys aren't running to the next spot. So practice is fast. The intensity is through the roof. You definitely have to come ready to go with the right mindset, or you'll quickly fall off the train.”

Tucker sounded happy with how things went on Monday. The first game is still weeks away, but it was a good first day.

“It felt great to get back out on the grass with the team,” Tucker said. “The guys were into it. We got a lot out of the practice today. Just a really good sense of urgency, attention to detail. We still got a long ways to go, but I feel like we made a good step today.”

The Spartans are still more than a week from putting on the pads and having a real practice, but that hardly means they’re taking things slowly. Without a traditional preseason camp – that was wiped out after only five days when the season was first postponed — the Spartans have begun taking classes and are following a schedule that would be more typical of how a week would play out during the season.

But still, there was something different about Monday. This time, they knew there was something to shoot for. For the first time in months, Michigan State’s football team had a game to get ready for, one they feel confident will take place.

“Today was the day, you could feel it in the air when you walked out on the practice field and it was different,” Lombardi said. “It was a different sort of vibe, even when they told us we're going to play it last week, you know, we had two workouts — maybe two or three —but they still didn't even feel real. But when we showed up today for practice, you could tell the energy of the coaches, the energy of the players. It was different. So I think we're finally getting to the point where you know this is right, we're gonna play ball. So, we got to get ready to go.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau