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Notes & Quotes: Mel Tucker says “First and foremost, I’m looking for guys that love football,” ahead of Early National Signing Day

In addition to talking about recruiting, Tucker also named Payton Thorne as the starting quarterback against Maryland, and informed the media that cornerback Chris Jackson is not currently with the program.

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Michigan State Spartans head football coach Mel Tucker met with the media today to discuss the upcoming “plus-one” game against Maryland on Saturday night, as well as the early signing period for recruiting tomorrow.

“I talked to Locks (Maryland head coach Mike Locksley) the past couple weeks, and he wanted to play, and we wanted to play, so we’re excited that we’re able to get this in,” Tucker said. “This plus-one game gives us an opportunity to continue to build and figure out how to play tough, relentless football for 60 minutes, four quarters in a game and finish strong.”

Tucker said he doesn’t know the details of how the Big Ten determined that the Michigan State and Maryland game would be made up, after it was originally scheduled on Nov. 21 and canceled following COVID-19 issues in the Terrapins program. But he is excited for the opportunity.

Tucker was informed early Sunday morning that the opponent would be Maryland. He thinks that some of the preparation for the Terps that the Spartans were able to get through in November will be helpful for the team, but he also made it clear that things have changed since then and there are adjustments that still need to be made.

“It’s gonna factor in a little bit (having prepared for Maryland previously), but we have to obviously take into account what they’ve done since then, and that determines what type of changes we need to make in our game plan,” Tucker said. “It’s kind of like if you’re in the NFL and you play a team twice a year in your division. Things change, personnel changes and you have to make adjustments.”

In addition to focusing on Maryland this week, Tucker and his staff have a big week in terms of recruiting. The early signing period begins tomorrow (Wednesday) and recruits in the 2021 class will be allowed to sign their National Letters of Intent. Of course, the 2021 class, which currently has 18 prospects who have verbally committed to Michigan State, will be Tucker’s first recruiting class as head coach of the Spartans.

“Tomorrow is a big day for us, for the program and this ‘21 class,” Tucker said. “So we’ve all got a heck of a lot of work to do these last few hours.”

Tucker was later asked about what he is looking for in recruits, and he went into great detail about the types of players he wants to bring into his program.

“First and foremost, I’m looking for guys that love football,” Tucker said. “That love to practice, like to watch football, like to talk about football — it’s just really important to them. That’s first thing I look for. We have an athletic evaluation on each player and then we have a fit score on each player that we take a commitment from and that we ultimately sign.”

The athletic evaluation that Tucker mentioned varies by position, but is generally focused on things like height, weight, speed, change of direction, balance, body control, explosiveness, ability to get off of blocks, leaping ability, etc.

The “fit score” Tucker brought up is more about health and intangible traits that a prospect may possess. These are questions the staff may ask to people close to the recruit such as high school coaches or counselors. Tucker mentioned things like leadership, coachability, injury history, if that player has been voted a captain, is this player is considered a good teammate, does this player handle constructive criticism well, has this recruit played other sports and so on. The staff will assign a “score” to the prospect based on this information.

Other recent news within the Michigan State program is with junior cornerback Shakur Brown, who recently announced his decision to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Brown, who is tied for the NCAA FBS lead in interceptions with five, still has time to change his mind and come back next season, but Tucker fully supports Brown’s decision to enter his name in the Draft.

“I like Shak, I love the kid,” Tucker said, “He’s improved. He’s made a lot of plays this year. I think he’s got tremendous upside. I really enjoyed working with him. I wish him all the best. I support all the players, year-in and year-out, working with college guys when they’re trying to make these decisions. I support them as much as I can and try to help them and help their families and be a resource for them.”

Brown’s status for Saturday’s game is uncertain. Tucker planned on talking to Brown today to see where he was in terms of wanting to play this weekend or not. Tucker also noted that it is possible more players may choose to sit out the game against Maryland based on what is best for them individually, but nothing has been determined for sure as of yet.

Tucker went on later to evaluate how Brown’s game could translate to the NFL. He believes Brown can make a name for himself as a cornerback in the pros, and enjoy a long and successful career.

“He’s got really good ball skills,” Tucker said. “He’s got good instincts. He’s competitive — he’s not afraid to match up. I think he’s got good feet. He’s got good leaping ability. He can play left and right and he can also play inside in the slot — which is hard to find guys who are able to do that. And I think he also has special teams value. He’s not tall, like really long, but he’s not small, and there’s a difference. He’s built pretty well and he’s a willing tackler. He plays with toughness and he’s very intelligent — he understands the game. I think he could be an asset to a NFL team and he can have a nice career.”

Speaking of cornerbacks, Tucker was asked about redshirt sophomore defensive back Chris Jackson. Jackson started early in the season before missing a couple games against Iowa and Indiana and then returning to the lineup in a rotational role against Northwestern and Ohio State. He did not play against Penn State, and, surprisingly, is not currently with the team.

“Chris hasn’t been with the team, and I really don’t anticipate him being back with the team this season,” Tucker said. “We’ll assess everything with Chris after the season when we’re all wrapped up.”

As for the quarterback situation, Tucker got straight to the point this week — which is usually not the case. After a strong performance against Penn State, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne will get his second-straight start on Saturday against Maryland. The status of redshirt junior Rocky Lombardi, who started the majority of the year and was injured in the Ohio State game, is unclear, but Tucker hopes he’ll be available as well.

“Payton’s gonna start this week and then hopefully Rocky (Lombardi) will be available for us,” Tucker said. “We just have to see how the week goes with him.”

If Thorne is able to lead the Spartans to victory this weekend, it’s still possible that Michigan State could get an invite to a bowl game. While other programs have decided to opt out of potential bowl invites after getting through a tough season with a global pandemic still raging on, Tucker and MSU, on the other hand, would welcome the chance.

“If we were asked to play, I would love to play,” Tucker said. “I want to play, I want to practice, I want to compete. I want to get more practice time with our guys and keep developing our guys, just seeing how far we can take this team and what this team can become before we turn the page to our offseason conditioning program and then lead them to spring ball and things like that. I want to play as much as possible.

“I’m used to coaching a lot more football and used to playing a lot more games than this. So, shoot, if we can get we get anything going, I’d love the play, man. If we can a pickup game going unofficially somewhere, I’d do that. We need to play football.”

Mel Tucker Full Remarks

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