It has been anything but a normal transition for Mel Tucker ever since he became Michigan State's new head coach back on Feb.12.
Tasked with bringing in a new coaching regime and establishing his own culture within the program was going to be difficult in and of itself. Add to that a global pandemic, and it's been hard for Tucker to create any sense of rhythm over the past six months. The coronavirus shut down spring practices before they even began, halted summer workouts, and postponed the season to Aug. 11.
Fast forward to just over a month from the postponement of fall sports, and the football season is back on. University presidents and chancellors voted Wednesday unanimously in favor of starting the season the weekend of Oct. 23-24, albeit with strict medical protocols and daily testing. This gives Tucker just about five weeks to get his team ready for game action, and he will be taking advantage of the extra time to make sure his team is fully prepared.
"We just want to make the most of all the opportunities that we have," Tucker said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. "Whether it's in-season or out of season or we're playing or not, we've taken full advantage of the time that we've had. We put our players right back in the weight room with Coach Novak and his staff ... we feel like our team is in better condition than they were five weeks ago."
When it comes to preparing for the season, Tucker said the team will continue lifting and running Thursday and Friday, while also participating in seven-on-seven drills. Saturday will be used for a film session, followed by an off-day Sunday.
The team is targeting to begin normal practice on Monday Sept. 21, and will slowly ramp things up as the weeks progress. Tucker said he hopes for everyone to be at full speed two weeks before games begin. Practices in full pads are set to begin Sept. 30.
One thing Tucker stressed was the importance of keeping the families of his players involved in this up-and-down process. Since mid-June, he has conducted seven Zoom meetings with players and their parents in order to keep everybody informed with the most up-to-date information. Tucker said an eighth meeting may take place Saturday after the film session.
"I believe that has helped quite a bit just to make sure everyone is on the same page," Tucker said. "The lines of communication have been open, constantly."
Before the season was originally postponed back in August, several Michigan State players had opted out of the upcoming season. LB Marcel Lewis, DL Jacub Panasiuk, OL Jordan Reid and OT Justin Stevens all listed concerns over the coronavirus and chose not to play. Since the announcement of the season starting back up, only Lewis has opted back in. Tucker expects the final decisions for the other three, along with anyone else who may want to opt out, to be settled within the next couple of days.
"My stance has not changed, we're going to support our players." Tucker said. "Regardless of whether they opt in or they have opted out, everyone has a different circumstance and we respect that. We're supporting our players 100% with whatever they decide to do."
Even though the conference is planning to start up the season and play a nine-game schedule, Tucker knows nothing is certain. A COVID-19 outbreak could prevent a team or certain players from seeing the field for an extended period of time. With all of the uncertainty, Tucker isn't looking that far ahead, instead just taking things as they come to him.
"You really have to take it one day at a time," Tucker said. "We always knew that we wanted to play and we always knew that at some point we would be able to play, we just didn't know exactly when. But when the time was right, we wanted to be ready."
Tucker is still trying to learn on the fly, getting acclimated to his new team and coaching staff despite all the stop-and-go obstacles he went through this offseason. Now, with what appears to be a clear five week slate ahead to get prepared for the upcoming season, Tucker is just ready to get going without stopping.
"I learn something new every day," Tucker said. "Just working hard to connect with our players, and also with the coaches that I haven't gone through a season with before ... there's still a lot of evaluation that needs to take place on the football field. But the things that I do know is that we got a great bunch of guys that are high character guys, that love football, like to work hard, love what we're doing in the weight room, embraced our new coaching staff and schemes ... and they're excited to play."
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