The Mel Tucker era at Michigan State will be underway in two and a half weeks as the Spartans will hit the field in a virtually empty Spartan Stadium against Rutgers on Oct. 24.
The evaluation process for Tucker and his coaching staff is still ongoing, with important decisions to be made at the quarterback position along with finding a way to replace eight starters on defense. MSU has been practicing in pads for a week now, and the team held its own scrimmage last Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
It was the perfect situation for Tucker to see what his guys can do in a game-like situation as the start of the season approaches.
"I was very pleased," Tucker said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "Obviously a scrimmage is a different type of evaluation than just a normal practice when you're not tackling live to the ground. And so you just find out a little more about each player in that situation, in the stadium. That was actually the first time as a staff that we've seen our guys go live (and) full speed to the ground."
The Spartans got a big boost when senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk decided to opt back in for the 2020 season back on Sept. 18. As of Wednesday, Tucker said that senior offensive tackle Jordan Reid and freshman offensive lineman Justin Stevens have not changed course on their decision to opt out for the upcoming season due to COVID-19 concerns, and that they have the full support of Tucker and the rest of the program.
The players that Tucker inherited and who will take the field this fall seem to be embracing the new regime, and that has stood out to Tucker in a big way.
"I like the way our players are buying in to our system and to our culture and how we do things," Tucker said. "Also, I'm very pleased with our coaching staff, coming together relatively for the first time on the field on a consistent basis. And how we're working together with our players, along with our strength staff and all of our support people. So, I feel very confident about our operation and our process. ... I do see significant buy-in from our players in terms of what we're asking them to do, and that is very, very positive."
Last week, Offensive Coordinator Jay Johnson said that quarterbacks Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day and Payton Thorne have all been getting equal reps in practice as a starter has yet to be named. Following the team's scrimmage Saturday and with a couple more possibly on the horizon, Tucker said that not much has changed and wouldn't give way to who he thinks has the edge in the battle at this point.
"We're still in that process of rotating our guys," Tucker said. "Equal amount of reps, they're working with different groups and we're still right in the middle of the evaluation process. All of our quarterbacks, they bring a different set of skills and different traits to the table, and that's very interesting to see. The competition is good."
Tucker said that he and his coaching staff have been experimenting with playing guys at different positions on both sides of the ball. A player that was mentioned last week by Johnson was redshirt junior punter Tyler Hunt, an exceptional athlete who the team is trying out at tight end. It appears more situations like this could be in the fold for MSU, as Tucker is looking at all his options.
When asked about the Week 1 depth chart, Tucker used the term "rep chart" as a way to describe his process of narrowing down who his starters will be. Those final decisions are set to be made closer to game week.
"We have more of a rep chart than a depth chart right now," Tucker said. "There's a difference because we are rotating our guys and giving our guys opportunities to work with other players. That evaluation is ongoing, and we're right in the middle of it."
As for outside expectations and the national outlook of his team this season, Tucker is just focused on the day-to-day process and is still setting the bar high, regardless of how people outside the program think his team will fare in 2020.
"Pressure is a privilege," Tucker said. "The expectations are high here. They always have been, and I embrace that."
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