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'Been a while': MSU's Mel Tucker adapts to football-less fall reality

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s been quite some time since Mel Tucker wasn’t on a football sideline when the fall rolled around.

The best he could recall, it came between the end of is playing career at Wisconsin in 1995 and when he landed his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997.

“It’s been a while,” Tucker said.

More than 20 years later, the first-year head coach of the Spartans finds himself in the odd position of having no games to coach when the calendar hits September. That’s the reality for Tucker and the rest of the coaches in the Big Ten — and the Pac-12 as well as a handful of other conferences — as the season was postponed because of COVID-19 with plans for playing some sort of season in the spring.

Mel Tucker

“Obviously, there was some disappointment,” Tucker admitted. “But we're preparing for what's next and staying focused on what we can control.”

What’s next is difficult when there are so few answers coming from the Big Ten. There have yet to be any clear indications over whether there will be a spring season, how it could affect eligibility and whether players would be allowed to transfer to another conference that is planning to play this fall.

In the meantime, Tucker has opted to put his team through what can best be described as an offseason workout program, something a team would typically do in January and February. And if the Spartans do end up playing in the spring, this could be valuable time for them, especially considering their traditional spring practice was wiped out by COVID-19 and preseason camp made it all of a little more than three days.

“The one word is relentless,” Tucker said of the workouts. “It’s high velocity and it's non-stop and we're going to build a broad base of strength conditioning, which will allow our players to compete at the highest level when the time is right. So we'll be ready.”

More: Critics wonder whether Big Ten actually conducted vote to cancel football season

There’s plenty Michigan State needs to get figured out before it plays a game. Strength and conditioning is a good start, but the Spartans need to play football. Tucker said it’s critical to see the level of physicality his players have while it will give a better idea of where they stand at particular positions.

He and the coaching staff saw it briefly, and it was enough to leave him with positive thoughts moving forward.

“I like the makeup of our team,” Tucker said. “I like our team chemistry. I like our work ethic. Our guys are unselfish, they love to play football and I just really enjoy watching our staff get a chance to be really hands-on with our players and just seeing our guys out there as a football team.

“Football is a great game. That's why we're here because we love the coach, we love to play and it was great being out on the grass with our players.”

In addition to the strength and conditioning work, teams are permitted to go through workouts in helmets and shorts with a high emphasis on walkthroughs. They’ll likely follow the same pattern as they did when they were allowed 20 hours of work each week this summer leading up to preseason camp.

Of course, Michigan State spent 14 days of that stretch in quarantine after two staffers tested positive. So, the Spartans will find a way to adapt and keep working for the day when they play again, whenever that is.

In the meantime, Tucker will get used to not being on the field, too.

“Zoom press conferences, recruiting, signing footballs,” Tucker said when asked what he’s doing every day. “I worked out this morning at 7 a.m. I had two donor meetings scheduled today. And then it’s recruit, recruit, recruit.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau