Mel Tucker sees 'different vibe' as Michigan State opens spring practice
A year ago, folks around the Michigan State football building were probably still wearing name tags.
Mel Tucker was roughly a month on the job, he’d just put together his coaching staff and the Spartans were about to begin spring practice.
Of course, that all went out the window when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down Michigan State’s spring workouts and forcing a bizarre offseason of isolation and Zoom meetings with a staff and roster that hardly knew each other.
Fast forward a year and Tucker and his crew are in a far different position. The Spartans have been through a season — albeit, a short one that lasted only seven games but included two wins over ranked opponents — have seen plenty of turnover on the roster and gone through a full winter conditioning program.
So, as they hit the field around 9 a.m. Tuesday, there was a change in the air.
“There's a different vibe in the building, in the locker room, in the weight room,” Tucker said. “There’s a different type of energy. We're moving forward, we're gaining ground. There's a better understanding, there’s more buy-in, we have more trust.
“And the guys returning, we've been through some things together, and that's important. You really don't know what you have until it starts hitting the fan. So, we’ve been through it and we know what to expect out of each other.”
That vibe was clear on Tuesday morning. The long winter was over. The prospect of a full season this fall was on the horizon and the Spartans were feeling energized.
“Everybody was hype, everyone was having fun doing their job, running to the ball, trying to make each other better,” senior defensive end Drew Beesley said. “It’s just like a fun party that guys like to have. We were just having fun with each other and I feel like that's the most important thing for our guys, especially with the new guys coming in. It’s all business but at the same time we're just having a good time.”
There are plenty of new faces, as Beesley pointed out. But there’s some old ones, too.
Beesley himself opted to take the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility and is back for a sixth season along with fellow defensive end Jacub Panasiuk. Offensive linemen A.J. Arcuri, Matt Allen and Luke Campbell are back, as well, along with kicker Matt Coghlin.
Others opted not to come back, including tight end Matt Dotson, defensive back Tre Person and wide receiver Laress Nelson.
“In the first year there’s going to be some attrition,” Tucker said. “I understand that, and we’re prepared for that, but that’s not going to slow us down. We're going to do what we have to do to build our football team. … The players that stay with us, they believe in what we're doing and have bought into our culture. I feel like this is what they want. What we're doing in our program, what we're teaching, our philosophy, our culture is something that resonates with the players that are here. That's also what has attracted players to our program.
“We have a lot to sell, and we're in the building stages of something that we believe is going to be something special.”
The new faces included four early enrolled freshmen — quarterback Hamp Fay, offensive lineman Ethan Boyd, tight end Kameron Allen and safety Michael Gravely Jr. — as well as six players who transferred into the program. That group includes quarterback Anthony Russo, running back Kenneth Walker III, offensive lineman Jarrett Horst, defensive end Drew Jordan, safety Kendall Brooks and cornerback Spencer Rowland.
While several of those players could make an immediate impact, all eyes will be on Russo and the quarterback battle. Redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, who started the final game last season, as well as sophomore Theo Day, freshman Noah Kim and even Fay will get a shot to win the job.
“We'll have an open competition,” Tucker said. “I believe your quarterback has to be the No. 1 competitor on your team. So, first and foremost, that's what we're looking for. We're looking for leadership and we're looking for someone who can execute and run our offense efficiently and effectively. We have some talented players in that quarterback room. … Our job is to get (the most) out of the players that we do have and I’m confident we can get that done.”
Similar position battles will play out all over the field. The running back room is crowded and likely will grow in the summer with the expected addition of Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III, while offensive line, linebacker and the secondary will have plenty of jockeying for position on the depth chart, as well.
And by the end of spring, there could be more changes to the roster. Tucker has made it clear the Spartans will stay active in the portal and there’s a good chance the roster looks different by the time preseason camp begins in August.
“There may be some more attrition, we'll have to see,” Tucker said. “Typically after spring ball there's usually some changes on the roster, and we're certainly going to look to add some more players from the portal. We’re going to look to add guys all the way until we start to start fall camp. That's the name of the game — get the best players that you can find and teach and motivate and develop them.
“You have to have good players to have a chance to compete and win games in this conference and beyond. It's the Jimmys and the Joes, not the X's and O's.”
Tucker and his staff got the first look at his group of Jimmys and Joes on Tuesday morning. Maybe some names and faces change. Maybe they don’t.
But with a full spring on tap, one the Spartans and so many teams missed out on a year ago, the optimism was hard to hide.
“I was excited to get out on the field,” Tucker said. “There’s nothing out there but green grass and opportunity.”