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'It's becoming more real': Mel Tucker, MSU in overdrive with opener looming

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The first kickoff of the Big Ten season is a little more than two weeks away, and while that might be hard to believe, reality is starting to set in for Mel Tucker and Michigan State.

The season many weren’t sure would happen begins the weekend of Oct. 24, and for a week now, the Spartans have been in full pads, even fitting in a scrimmage Saturday as they prepare for their opener at home against Rutgers.

For Tucker, the first-year head coach who has had to overcome his share of obstacles in his first eight months on the job, it might not come fast enough.

First-year MSU coach Mel Tucker is preparing for his debut with the Spartans.

“It is becoming more real each and every day, which is a good thing,” Tucker said Wednesday in a virtual meeting with reporters. “We've been waiting a long time for this for this opportunity, and we’re just making the most of it every day and embracing the challenges that we have.”

The challenges have been well-documented. Like most teams in the Big Ten and around college football, spring practice was completely wiped out while off-season workouts were essentially non-existent as players, coaches and universities coped with the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one that’s hit Michigan State hard, as it went through a two-week quarantine that ended in early August, just before the fall season was first postponed.

Since the announcement came that an eight-game season would, indeed, be played, the focus for Tucker has shifted to more football-specific issues.

From determining who will be the starting quarterback to filling out numerous positions on the defense, player evaluation is in overdrive as the staff works to determine who fits where.

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“We have more of a rep chart than a depth chart right now,” Tucker said. “There’s a difference because we are rotating our guys and giving guys an opportunity to work with other players and so, that evaluation is ongoing and we're right in we're right in the middle of it. At some point we're going to make decisions on who the starters are going to be and who the next man up is going to be, but in actuality, that’s also not set in stone because we have to compete to play. You have to earn the playing time that you get each and every day. There's never going to be a moment where a player has a position and he does not have to compete and fight to maintain that position on a daily basis. That's just not how we operate.”

The chance to get out and scrimmage over the weekend was a chance for Tucker and his staff to finally see the players in a game situation. That work, along with what Tucker hopes will be a second scrimmage this weekend, goes a long way in determining the early depth chart.

“Obviously, a scrimmage is a different type of evaluation than just a normal practice when you’re not tackling live to the ground,” Tucker said. “So you find out a little bit more about each player in that situation, in the stadium. That was actually the first time as a staff that we've seen our guys go live, so it was beneficial for the players and also for the staff.”

While there are multiple position battles, the quarterback spot, of course, is drawing the most attention with junior Rocky Lombardi, sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne all in the mix.

Last week, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson said the trio was splitting first-team reps evenly and while he hoped to have a starter determined before the opener, he added the competition could play out into the season.

Tucker added the quarterbacks are still in “competition mode and things have not completely shaken out yet,” while also making it clear that playing time and depth charts would be determined by the players.

“Like I told the players after the scrimmage, ‘If you're not where you want to be right now then change your behavior,’” Tucker said. “Your behavior will determine how you perform, and if you are happy with where you are right now, understand what's working for you and continue to do those things but then figure out what I need to do to take it up a notch or two.’

“That’s how it's going to be, and that's also going to be all year, all season and that's also going to be in the offseason. Every day it’s, ‘Are you getting better, or are you getting worse?’ Then it's our job to help our players navigate that.”

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The focus for the Spartans will continue to be on themselves until at least the middle of next week, Tucker said. At that point, there will start to be some work on Rutgers, the week-one opponent, before shifting to all Rutgers during game week.

The only certainty, at this point, is that senior offensive lineman Jordan Reid will not be playing. Tucker said the right tackle — as well as freshman offensive lineman Justin Stevens — remain opted out for the season.

In the meantime, Tucker and his staff will continue to evaluate while not putting too much emphasis on how anyone from outside the program thinks they’ll do once the season begins.

“The expectations are high here, they always have been,” Tucker said, “and I embrace that. But we're really focused on the process, the day-to-day process in terms of developing our team, developing our culture, connecting with our players and hammering that process and working our processes daily.

“We just make sure that we don't get too far ahead of ourselves in terms of our thought process. We talk to our players about then, now and next.

"Right now, we're in the now, and what we do now will determine what we do next. But we're in the now.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau