After a tumultuous first season at the helm dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic, head coach Mel Tucker and the MSU football team could be seen as entering year one of the new regime after their first full offseason together.
Tucker isn’t buying that narrative though, not for a second.
“People tell me 'Coach, for you, this is really like year one,’” Tucker said in his press conference at Big Ten Media Days in Lucas Oil Stadium. “No, it's not year one, it's year two and we've (got to) get this thing moving. There's a sense of urgency in our program, in our building and I'm excited about that.”
Tucker’s sense of urgency has been on full display throughout the 2021 offseason after the Spartans finished a mediocre 2-5 in 2020. The roster was not up to his standards in terms of talent in his eyes, which prompted Tucker to bring in 34 new faces via the 2021 recruiting class and the transfer portal to infuse talent into the roster immediately.
All of this restructuring was not only in an effort to get better, Tucker said, but to find guys who fit the culture he wants to bring back to MSU.
And what is that culture exactly?
Well, Tucker laid out the attitude he expects out of players and what he wants MSU football to become synonymous with, as well.
“When you think about Michigan State football, you think of tough, hard-nosed, physical, meat and potatoes, not a lot of French pastry,” Tucker said. “All-Weather football. That's what Michigan State football is all about. Rugged, lunch pail. It's a working program. It's for the people, it's for the fans because a certain brand of football is expected at Michigan State. We recruit to it. We coach to it. That's our culture.”
Players have noticed the shift in culture as well and have adopted this rugged mentality instilled by the coaching staff.
“A tough mentality, style of sport, intense, super enthusiastic every day,” wide receiver Jalen Nailor said when asked to describe Tucker in an interview with the Big Ten Network. “There's no day where Coach is not coming in enthusiastic, trying to fire the guys up. So it's just a wonderful time that we are part of knowing that we can switch up the culture and then learn from Coach Tuck and bring that part of our new culture.”
Tucker said that the foundation of that culture was in place at the end of the 2020 season but admitted that the Spartans have a long way to go before reaching their goals of competing for the Big Ten and ultimately a national championship.
“We're behind,” Tucker said. “We're playing catch up. And the competitiveness of our roster, that has increased tremendously because of recruiting. Guys know that they're gonna have to bring it each and every day in order to get on the field, and that’s what we want, and guys are embracing that.”
The long timetable on the rebuild for Tucker and the Spartans has quelled excitement for the team from national media — MSU was picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten East in a Cleveland.com preseason media poll — but that has not stopped them from getting excited themselves about the future.
“We've got a lot of work to do and we're a work in progress, but the process of day to day in cementing that culture of accountability, I feel the momentum,” Tucker said. “It's coming together. Our players can feel it, our coaches can feel it, our donors can feel it. They're excited and we can't wait to get going.”
Building that culture of accountability this offseason has been through “aggregate marginal gains” across the entire program, Tucker said. This process, as Tucker described, was pushing everyone to get a little bit better at their respective jobs, from players to the equipment staff.
“Everyone just get a little bit better,” Tucker said. “Everyone get a little bit better, do your job a little bit better, and you add that up and that's how you get better, fast. That's what we have to do. I feel the momentum in our program in every aspect.”
Success, ultimately, will be measured if the Spartans can make improvements in the 2021 season and show that Tucker is the man for the job. If 2021 is filled with the same mental mistakes on both sides of the ball, the season will not be a success, safety and team captain Xavier Henderson said.
“I want to see how we bounce back from adversity,” Henderson said. “That one time we get a bad half, a bad quarter, I want to see how we play after that and that'll be how successful we can be the rest of the year.”
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