Tuesday, December 7, 2021

'No hostages': How roster turnover jump-started Tucker's team culture

October 20, 2021
<p>Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne takes his helmet off following a three-and-out.</p>

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne takes his helmet off following a three-and-out.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

The uncertainty surrounding the Michigan State football team seemed endless entering the 2021 season. After bringing in 20 new players via the transfer portal and a recruiting class of 19 more, it was unclear what to expect from the Spartans.

But, questions about how the new faces would gel together quickly faded once MSU took the field. 

The chemistry between the old guard and the imported new talent was apparent from the opening snap against Northwestern. It has been the central component of the Spartans' on-field success in their perfect 7-0 start to the season.

“We talk about hostages and guys that are here but they don't really want to be here,” sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne said. “I feel like we don't really have any of those guys. We have guys that understand their role and understand why they're here, and that's key -- Understanding why you're here, why you're doing stuff and why you're playing. You have to have a greater purpose of why you're playing or else you're going to lack motivation, and you have to be motivated internally.”

On a team filled with players looking for a second chance in college, the competition between new players brought the team closer. Every starting spot was open to competition from day one, Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker said. That competition over the summer was crucial to bringing the team together. 

The goal of succeeding as a team outweighs any individual goals, graduate student defensive end and Duke transfer Drew Jordan said

“The ultimate goal was to be successful, not just individually, but as a team,” Jordan said. “If everybody is training as hard as they can to be successful, we come together as a group. That was the biggest thing for us was you saw everybody working hard, you saw everybody competing for a spot and that competition made it so you had a huge respect level for one another.”

Jordan, who moved to East Lansing in January, said Michigan State has lived up to the recruiting pitch he got from the coaching staff when he was exploring his options  in the transfer portal. The conversations with Tucker focused on his role in MSU’s resurgence this year, which included winning games and championships immediately. 

“When it came to my recruitment, the coaches really preached how the goal is to come out here and be successful, and we're going to transform this program into what it was previously,” Jordan said. “That's what we are striving to do as players, as coaches, as support staff. That was the message that was echoed through the whole program and it's not just a players thing, it's also the coaches. It's everybody.”

For Jordan, Michigan State has been everything and more that was promised during his recruitment.

“They're straining as much as they possibly can to continue on this track of being a successful team and then, in the future, be a successful program,” Jordan said. “When I was coming here, that's what I saw. And to any recruits, that's what they're advertising and their advertising is exactly how they say it. They're not going to just tell you something that's lip service, it's going to be the real thing.”

The pitch to Jordan and the other transfers was the first step in the coaching staff’s effort in reshaping the culture of the team into what Tucker wants: prioritizing team goals over individual goals, being coachable and, most importantly, working with championship aspirations in mind. 

“I don't ever want to have to beg anyone to come here, whether it's a coach, hiring a staff,” Tucker said. “Obviously you have to compete and things like that, but at the end of the day, you have to want to be here for the right reasons.”

Once Tucker got the new players in the building, he went to work on constructing a new identity for the team. It’s an identity sculpted around open competition, accountability and focusing on the road ahead.

“When you have a lot of players that buy into what you're selling and believe in the process and everyone's working together and with common goals, common purpose, everybody's eyes are wide open," Tucker said. "No one's delusional, no sense of entitlement. You can get a lot done with that type of group, that type of culture, that type of mentality. That’s our focus, our work in progress.”

Tucker is having a great time doing it.

"I'm having a blast," Tucker said. "As coaches, we like to coach. We like to be with the players, we like to see guys get better. ... We're trying to maximize our team and help our guys reach their full potential. That's the beauty of it and that's what makes it fun."

The culture has led to the oddly-formed group becoming tight-knit, both on and off the field. The trials and tribulations of open tryouts for every starting position brought players together as they battled to get better individually. 

The push to be better coupled with the players buying in on the team’s goals has brought the best out of the Spartans on the gridiron, who have stormed off to a perfect record and a spot in the AP top 10. The hunger to be great has brought MSU to unexpected heights; but they are ready to push to the team’s goal — a championship.

“It's definitely a great feeling,” senior safety Xavier Henderson said prior to MSU’s win over Indiana on Oct. 16. “I don't think I've been 6-0, even through high school. So it's a great feeling, and we know we got a target on our back now. We got more work to do.”

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