Since Michigan State football last took the field for game day, there’s been three different schedules, a “canceled” season, a new coach hired and many other hiccups along the way. Now as their Oct. 24 matchup with Rutgers inches closer, Head Coach Mel Tucker and the Michigan State Spartans are finally set to play some football.
“I can’t help but smile because this is a dream come true for me to be able to represent this great university and our Spartan nation as a head football coach,” Tucker said to media Oct. 20. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Redshirt senior offensive lineman Matt Allen said that the team has been working for this moment since the season ended last winter.
"There's a lot of excitement in the locker room,” Allen said. “We've been going hard as soon as the season ended, and this is all we've been working for. We didn't know if it was going to happen or not, so a lot of the guys are ecstatic that we were able to have the opportunity to play this Saturday. Everybody's focused and ready to go, and I'd say the biggest thing we're focused on right now is Rutgers.”
Tucker has been noticeably vague on the specific schemes and game plans for their home opener, but the physical culture and energy is something that the first year head coach is selling to his team as they prepare for Rutgers.
“Our fans, they expect a certain standard of play, and that’s tough, physical, disciplined, sense of urgency, attention to detail, very unselfish guys that are playing for each other, relentless competitors and playing complimentary football," Tucker said. “... We’ll all be pulling in the same direction, playing for this great university and all of our fans. We’re just very excited for this opportunity."
Prioritizing physicality and building the Spartan "rep chart"
One of the leaders on and off the field this season has been senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, who emphasized Tucker’s physical culture that he is setting in place.
“Coach Tuck is a physical dude,” Simmons said. “If there’s one thing we’re going to do during practice, it’s hit people. He tells us all the time ‘If you don’t know what to do, then just hit somebody. We can live with that, but if you have your palms at your side, you’re looking around, you’re not pulling your trigger on things, I don’t know if I can have you out there.’”
Despite having limited time, Allen knows what his coach expects of him on game day.
“He's (Tucker) made a huge emphasis on that (physicality) since he's come here, and we've definitely been hitting hard and getting after it every day just to be ready to go,” Allen said. “He talks about how we're going to be relentless, and I can tell just by the way we've been practicing and by the way he's been taking control of things and having us do certain drills we're going to be relentless. We're going to stay after the ball and stay after guys through the end of the whistle, through the end of the fourth quarter. “
While there may be a new coaching staff in town, that doesn’t change the mentality for the Spartans' defense of being a grit and grind, physical unit on the field.
“Meat and potatoes, just simple, no extra stuff,” Simmons said. “None of that glitz and glamour. We just want to show up, play and leave with wins, that’s the goal. That’s what Coach Tuck wants this program to be.”
In the COVID-19 era, it’s crucial to have depth with another factor that could hold out your athletes. With that, players even at the bottom of the depth chart — or rep chart as Tucker calls it — are getting reps.
“The emphasis with our coaching staff is to develop everyone on our roster, in anticipation of needing everyone at some point to be ready to play” Tucker said. “Our depth chart is more of a rep chart. This is who is going to take the reps first or second, not so much a depth chart that is set in stone. We’re trying to develop as many players as we can. A coaches job is to teach, motivate and develop, and every player on our roster is getting coached hard with attention to detail and a sense of urgency in anticipation of that player ultimately being on the field and playing winning football for us.”
It’s going to be similar for the captains of the team as well, who will be selected by the coaches on a game-by-game basis. After all the games have been played, a player vote will determine the official season captains.
Preparing for a Spartan Stadium kickoff that will look different than before
To prepare for the upcoming game, Tucker says the team has scrimmaged twice within Spartan Stadium, as well as holding a mock game in an attempt to get ready for such a unique atmosphere. With only family and friends of the players and staff in attendance, Michigan State will be pumping in crowd noise at a level set by the Big Ten as well as playing music.
“You want the practices to be as close to the game realities as possible, so we’ve done that with noise,” Tucker said. “It’s going to be very important for us on our sideline to generate and produce our own energy, our own excitement, our own intensity with the group that we have.”
With the different environment and less noise from the fans, band and other typical things in college game day atmosphere, communication could be much easier for the defense.
“I think the communication is definitely going to be a lot easier not having to worry about crowd noise,” Simmons said. "The negatives are the hard counts, we’re going to actually be able to hear each other’s language and terminology and good teams and smart players pick up on it. So it’s going to be on you to bring that extra edge.”
As the debut game of the Mel Tucker era approaches, it’s the brand of football that Tucker believes will be the main factor in determining how successful they are in week one.
“We’ll have to see on Saturday what they come out and do,” Tucker said. "It’s going to be important for us to play our brand of football. It’s going to be a lot about what we do, how we execute our plan, how hard we play, technique and fundamentals, how smart we play, how fast we play and how physical we play. That’s going to be the determining factor of what type of success we have on Saturday."
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