The start of the Mel Tucker era has been "very unique” according to the man himself. Other than watching some tape from prior games and some workouts, Tucker hasn’t seen a football in the hand of any of his players as fall camp is finally set to begin on Friday, Aug. 7. With a month to go until the first scheduled game in the upcoming conference-only season, there’s only one goal for Michigan State football.
Hit the field running.
“We’re going to hit the field running, that’s how we’re going to do it,” Tucker said. “When we hit that field everybody is going to be up-tempo and we’re going to have a lot of energy. Our coaches are going to chase the ball, and we’re going to make sure our players give great effort. We’re always going to coach for the next play.”
While the motto for fall camp will be to hit the field running, that won’t necessarily be the case. According to Tucker, the first four practices will be mostly similar to walk-through practices with breaks built in throughout the day to ensure each player doesn’t exceed their workload that they are capable of after two weeks off due to a quarantine. Tucker plans to continue to step up the workload so they can eventually go 100% at practice.
Despite a plan, there is always a level of uncertainty with everything in the year 2020. MSU's football program has put protocols in place for the inevitability that a player tests positive for COVID-19, such as quarantine and contact tracing done by Ingham County. The athletic department is making sure that all the student-athletes and their parents understand all possible options going forward, but for now, the team just wants to focus on the facts.
“What we’re doing is focusing on the truth, the truth of what we know right now, today,” Tucker said. “Based on what we know, then we know what we can do with that information. ... With that information, we’re going to try to get it right, and try to get it right every day.”
Running Zoom meetings, FaceTimes, phone calls and video games don’t give the new coaching staff any kind of sense of where guys are in terms of talent. When Tucker first met the players back In February, he emphasized that they all have a clean slate and will have to earn their standing with him. With that in mind, Tucker says that he will be establishing a “rep-chart” instead of the typical depth chart for fall camp, before eventually establishing the normal depth chart.
“Every drill that we do, whether it’s an individual drill, or a group drill, or a team drill, or a scrimmage, everything that we do will be filmed and graded by the coaches.” Tucker said. “Every player will get a grade on every drill, and we’re going to work really hard to teach, motivate and develop our guys. As we see our guys perform more and we’re able to evaluate them more, then we’ll be able to create a depth chart going into the season.”
In the next month, the staff will look to create an entirely new depth chart from scratch, as well as finding a new quarterback. Tucker thinks each player will have adequate time to prove their worth.
“What’s going to be important is what we do with the reps ... moving forward,” Tucker said. “I believe that we have enough time to get our players, our quarterbacks and everyone else the reps that they need to put their best foot forward to compete for jobs and prepare for the season. ... We’re going to evaluate our guys on everything they do. They’ll get a plus or minus, and ... we’ll add it all up at the end and see how it shakes out.”
Despite the pandemic limiting in-person coaching, some of the coaches actually believe that the Zoom meetings might have been more beneficial in terms of teaching schemes.
“Some of our coaches actually think that we were able to get more done in that aspect of it, in terms of the teaching with scheme and things like that, we were able to get more done than maybe what we would have been able to if we had spring ball,” Tucker said. “So, from a mental side of it, we were very efficient and made the most of the opportunities that we had.”
There had been lots of talk on how difficult it would be to install new schemes on offense and defense with such limited time and resources for the coaching staff, but with this Zoom time and now fall camp, the coaching staff believes that they will be able to ace the new playbook with ease.
“I don’t think we’ll have any limitations from a scheme standpoint of offense, defense or on special teams,” Tucker said. “Our first few practices will not resemble a typical start of what training camp will look like because there is an indoctrination process, and we are going to ramp these guys up because they have been idle for a couple weeks. Our players feel really good about that, so we’ll be able to progress them through our camp so by game week, we should be primed and ready to go.”
Michigan State will be an extremely young team after losing seven starters on defense from a year ago and now eight after defensive end Jacub Panasiuk decided to redshirt and opt-out for the upcoming season. Michigan State will return four of their five starters from an offensive line that struggled last year but will be looking for players to emerge at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end after veterans like current New England Patriots quarterback Brian Lewerke and wide receivers Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr. and more have departed the program.
With so many new positions waiting to be filled, it is a new opportunity for players to step up.
“We have a hungry football team and our players know that they have to compete, and they’re going to get what they deserve,” Tucker said. “There’s no room for complacency. No one really cares what you did last week. No one really cares what you did yesterday. It’s what have you done for me today, and that’s what you’re going to be evaluated on. Our players have a clean slate and everyone's going to get a fair evaluation. I expect our guys to compete every day to show us and show each other what they can do, and how they can help us.”
At the end of the day, what the coaching staff is looking to find are players who fit Tucker’s mantra of “relentless.”
“We have enough talented football players here to have a type of team that I want to have, which is a ... physically tough, hard-working, relentless, unified and unselfish football team,” Tucker said. “We have the guys here that are capable of doing that.”
If everything goes to plan, the Tucker era will begin on Sept. 5 against P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota Golden Gophers.
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