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Notes & Quotes: Mel Tucker talks “sacrifices” and “investments” with his players

In addition to Tucker’s comments, senior defensive tackle Naquan Jones also revealed that he had COVID prior to the start of the season.

Indiana v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Michigan State Spartans football coach Mel Tucker met with the media today to discuss this weekend’s matchup with the Northwestern Wildcats.

As usual, Tucker spoke about a variety of topics. He started off by wishing everybody on the Zoom call an early Happy Thanksgiving and thanking Michigan State’s medical staff for the work they’ve been putting in to allow the Spartans to continue with competition this season.

The Spartans are coming off of what was essentially a bye week, following the cancelation of last weekend’s game against the Maryland Terrapins. Maryland was forced to cancel its second consecutive game due elevated COVID-19 cases within the program.

“While we’re disappointed that we couldn’t play Saturday, the most important thing is the health and safety of our student athletes and our staff,” Tucker said. “And also the health of (Maryland) Coach (Mike) Locksley and his players, and I wish them a speedy recovery and a speedy return to play.”

After it was announced the game against Maryland would be canceled, MSU took last Thursday off and then did a walkthrough on Friday with a focus on Northwestern, followed by a shorts and helmets practice on Saturday, but for the last 30 minutes or so, the younger players, second stringers and third stringers put shoulder pads on so they could get in more padded, physical work. Sunday was a mandatory recovery, stretch and stride, and yoga day.

Tucker added his team used the extra time to “recharge” and try to get healthy. The team also used the extra practices to focus on technique and fundamentals. His focus has turned fully toward Northwestern and he had high praise for the Wildcats.

“We’re excited to play Northwestern, it’s a good football team,” Tucker said. “They’re very well-coached, Pat (Fitzgerald) has done a great job with them. They have a top-ranked defense. Their quarterback rating is a lot higher than it was a year ago, so they’re doing a good job there. They have a veteran team — they have a lot of seniors (and) redshirt seniors starting on both sides of the ball, and I could see why they’re having success.”

Tucker also said that Northwestern is “fundamentally sound” and that the Wildcats “play hard” and “play physical.” He also pointed to the fact that Northwestern ranks in the top-10 in the country in turnover margin and knows how to take the ball away. Tucker said the keys to the game for the Spartans are holding onto the football, being able to run the football more effectively, winning the field position battle and and playing complementary football.

As far as what this week will look like for the team with the Thanksgiving holiday — which is complicated by the pandemic and forcing the players to be away from their families — Tucker said it will function the same way as a normal practice week, but he understands how much his players have sacrificed for the better of the program.

“We’re gonna have a normal week,” Tucker said. “We had a normal Monday practice. We’re gonna have a physical practice today (Tuesday) and Wednesday and then we’ll have a de-load, no-sweat Thursday and we’ll have a fast Friday, then we’ll take it into the game (Saturday). That’s our plan. Obviously, this is not a normal Thanksgiving for us, or for anyone, because of the COVID pandemic. So, doing the things that we know we need to do to give us the best chance to be safe, we’re gonna do those things.

“The sacrifices that our players and our staff have made throughout this time has been tremendous. I talked to them this summer about it not being a ‘sacrifice,’ but an ‘investment’ in our team — an investment in yourself individually and an investment in our football team. There are challenges, and our players and our staff has done a formidable job just leaning into the new normal.”

For those hoping for an update on the quarterback competition between Rocky Lombardi and Payton Thorne, you’ll have to keep waiting — probably up until kickoff on Saturday afternoon. Tucker is keeping things close to the vest, as he normally does with personnel decisions throughout the week.

Something that Tucker did hit on that was interesting was the importance of developing every player on the roster, and not just focusing on the players who start. As mentioned, last week the staff thought it was important to get the younger players and No. 2, No. 3 players, etc. on the depth chart at each position some extra padded work.

“It’s important, we talked in the beginning that we need to develop our entire roster,” Tucker said. “We owe that to our players — whether they’re walk-ons, scholarship guys, freshmen guys, young guys — if they’re in our program, it’s up to us to develop them and get them as good as they can get. So when we have opportunities to give them extra work, then we need to do that. We need to schedule that and plan it and make it happen, and we did that. It’s important because real players want to be coached.”

When asked about senior defensive tackle Naquan Jones, Tucker had plenty of praise for Jones, and thinks he can continue to improve.

“Naquan is a young man that I’ve spent quite a bit time with one-on-one, just talking to him,” Tucker said. “Coach (Ron) Burton does an outstanding job coaching him, has a good relationship with him. Naquan, he’s a people person. He’s a big guy that’s got tremendous talent. For his size, he moves very well. He’s got initial quickness, he’s got some strength. So, he’s a guy that can do a lot of things. What I talk to him about on a consistent basis is consistency and performance, and that’s how you become successful...he wants to be a good player. He wants to be a consistent player and I see him working toward that, and we’re helping him do that.”

Speaking of Jones, he also met with the media today and reveled that he had actually had a bout with COVID himself prior to the season’s start.

Jones has not been able to see his family since he reported back to Michigan State in the summer. While it’s hard to be away from his family, Jones says “it’s a commitment.” He also puts his family’s health and safety first.

“I just look at it from a safety standpoint, psychologically” Jones said. “I feel like it’s the best thing. I’ve had COVID, and I have my grandmother in Florida and my niece. That would be selfish for me to be in an environment like this — traveling and playing against other people. So it’s just a risk. I’ve lost family members to COVID, and that’s something that my family takes very serious, so they understand.”

Jones said he didn’t have many “bad symptoms” while he was positive for COVID. He lost his sense of smell for two days, and did have some concerns about playing this season, but ultimately felt safe and didn’t want to opt out.

“I had a few concerns at first, before the season was postponed. It was very stressful for my family, so I did have a few concerns. But at the end of the day, I love to play football. MSU was doing a great job with their safety measures, and I felt safe. So that thought (of opting out) kind of comes out of my head.”

Jones is just the second known Spartan player to have contracted the virus. Offensive lineman Matt Carrick spoke about his battle with COVID-19 during this summer.

Additionally, redshirt sophomore tight end Trenton Gillison met with the media as well. You can listen to his remarks below.

Head Coach Mel Tucker Full Remarks

Naquan Jones Full Remarks

Trenton Gillison Full Remarks