Spartans 'working with guys we have,' roster availability unclear for opener

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

While Michigan State has been transparent in releasing the results of its COVID-19 testing, the university has never broken down the number of positive tests by sport.

And as the Spartans prepare to open the football season Saturday at home against Rutgers, there’s still no clear picture on how many players on the roster have been affected and whether any will be forced to miss the noon kickoff.

First-year coach Mel Tucker didn’t offer up any specifics about cases related to his team during his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

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“We have released those results for a number of months now and so, as of right now, we're working with the guys that we have,” Tucker said during his virtual meeting with reporters. “As the week unfolds we’ll determine who will be the guys that dress and will be available to us to play. But I feel good about the group of guys that we have.”

Michigan State’s players and staff are currently undergoing daily antigen testing six days a week, a protocol that began in late September under the direction of the Big Ten. Any player who tests positive then must have that confirmed by a PCR test, which would then require a 21-day wait before returning to the field.

The most recent testing numbers released by the athletic department on Friday saw a continued decrease in positive cases as three student-athletes out of 81 came back with positive results while no staffers had a similar result.

The football team has had its issues with the coronavirus, shutting down late in the summer for two weeks after two staffers tested positive. The team came out of that quarantine just days before the original preseason camp began. That camp, though, ended after just five days when the Big Ten first postponed the fall season.

Rutgers, Saturday’s opponent, had a similar shutdown in late July. In mid-August, coach Greg Schiano indicated at least 30 players had tested positive.

MSU coach Mel Tucker will make his debut with the Spartans this weekend.

No depth chart

For the first time in recent memory, Michigan State did not release a depth chart during a game week.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be one at any point this season, but for now, Tucker said he’s worried more about getting his players ready to play. And with the uncertain nature of COVID-19 combined with the usual risk of injuries, having depth — any sort of depth — is important.

“I don't anticipate releasing a depth chart anytime early in this week,” Tucker said. “This this is a unique year. As you know, things change daily. So, the emphasis with our coaching staff is to develop every player on our roster in anticipation of needing everyone at some point in time to be ready to play. So, our depth chart is more of a rep chart. This is who is going to take the reps first or second, and then not so much a depth chart set in stone.

“So, we're trying to develop as many players as we can. A coach's job is to teach, motivate and develop, and every player on our roster is getting coached hard with attention to detail and a sense of urgency and anticipation of that player, ultimately, being on the field and playing winning football for us.”

Captaincy process

The lack of a depth chart is a shift from the Mark Dantonio era, and so, too, is the process for determining captains.

Under Dantonio, the captains were always selected by the team just prior to the season. The numbers sometimes varied, but the Spartans would then also have game-day captains.

Tucker said on Tuesday MSU will utilize only game-day captains each week and they will be selected by the coaches. At the end of the year, permanent captains will be voted on by the team.

“My coaching staff and myself will pick those captains weekly, and then we'll announce them to the team,” Tucker said. “And then at the end of the season, the players will vote on captains and then those will be the permanent captains for this particular season. That's how that's how we handle the captain situation.”

Suspended linebackers

Tucker did not offer any details on the suspensions of redshirt freshmen linebackers Luke Fulton and Charles Willekes, who were arrested in early September. Fulton was charged with aggravated assault, according to court records, and Willekes was arrested as part of the same complaint, East Lansing Police Department deputy chief Steve Gonzalez said. Willekes’ court records, however, are not public.

“We released a statement about Luke and Charles,” Tucker said. “They’ve been suspended from the team. We acted quickly and decisively about that.”

On Oct. 2, Fulton pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery, and according the 54B District Court records, will avoid up front jail time under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act. His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 28.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau