Over the last few weeks, with strict social distancing guidelines in place due to COVID-19, the Michigan State football staff has been participating in teleconferences with the media. Special Teams and Linebackers Coach Ross Els spoke with the media last Thursday and was asked if he had anyone in mind to be the punt or kick returners for next season.
But this is anything but normal.
“Nope, no idea.” Els said. “I haven’t seen a kicker kick, a punter punt, or a wideout or a running back. The one day I saw them work out, I wouldn’t have a clue who they were.”
Els, in his time on the Spartan coaching staff, has seen one conditioning practice before everything was shut down, and is still out in Colorado for the time being. Needless to say, the staff’s access to players has been limited. Els was asked his initial impression of the linebackers despite his "kind of" limited access.
“Kind of limited to access?” Els said. “Oh my goodness, completely limited access!”
Els highlights with incredible enthusiasm exactly what this coaching staff is having to go through in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a staff that was built already at an inopportune time after Mark Dantonio’s late departure in February this year.
This is a staff that has had to transition spring football to online Zoom meetings, while still not even knowing fully who these kids are, because as of now, guys like defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton are just trying to figure out how to make these guys laugh.
“You’re just getting to know them, and I think for us as a defense right now, that is as valuable as anything, just building a relationship to where when I say a joke about somebody in a meeting and it makes sense,” Hazelton said.
Not only that, but this is a staff that loses well over half of its starters on the defensive side of the football, the unit that kept the entire team afloat during a sub-.500 season.
On the other side, the offense is being completely rebuilt from scratch, as none of the former staff under Dantonio are returning to coach. Almost all of the major skill players returning on offense are young as well, with the graduation of guys like Darrell Stewart, Brian Lewerke, and Matt Seybert, and the departure of Cody White to the NFL, leaving Rocky Lombardi and Connor Heyward as some of the only upperclassmen who may have a role in the upcoming offense.
“I think this whole situation is kind of trying and unique for all of us,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “It does have its challenges, but at the end of the day everybody's in the same boat.”
In addition, the players are dealing with the repercussions just about every other team is facing with the lack of proper equipment to attempt to stay in shape while stuck at home, as guys like A.J. Arcuri are working out with cinder blocks and broomsticks.
All of this isn’t to say that fans shouldn’t be excited for the upcoming season, because frankly, coach Mel Tucker and this staff have done some impressive things up to this up to this point, even hauling in three recruits for the 2021 recruiting class in the midst of a global pandemic. Not only that, but the way they have been able to get the players to buy in without any real interaction has been impressive as guys like Matt Allen say that the team has been fired up with a fresh start.
“It’s like a new start for everybody in the program,” Allen said. “I think it's really lit a fire under everybody and everybody has been coming to work.”
They’ve also even found ways to keep fans locked in, with things that even I feel too old for, like Tik Toks with the coaching staff.
However, the expectations and the desire for success should be toned down in year one under the new staff, and fans need to give Tucker time to bring the team back to success.
We are in the midst of one of the most unprecedented moments in our history in the United States, and it affects everything from your local business to some young adults trying to play some football. These student athletes are trying to do it all from staying in shape, keeping up in class, and in many cases, taking care of their family. The staff is trying to do much of the same all while trying to get to even know the players on a personal level, let alone trying to scout their athletic ability.
This is a team that has to learn new schemes, new terminology, and new faces, all while not in the same room or multi-million-dollar facilities that they were in just a few months ago.
When sports finally do come back, the public (and quite honestly myself) will be itching for some real-live action and scrutinizing every second of action we get when that time finally comes. I already found myself analyzing Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s new contract just a couple weeks ago when I would not have even batted an eye at the contract in February of this year. It is important that we do not peel over every detail and scrutinize every detail of year one under Tucker because frankly, there will be problems in year one. To not expect that fresh off of COVID-19 and what these guys have had to go through is naive.
So, when the bad days and struggles on the field do come and the lights finally do dawn on a new era of Spartan football, understand what this staff has had to piece together over the last few months, because at the end of the day, they are just like everyone else in these crazy times.