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Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker speaks to media prior to official start of fall camp

“I feel like we’re poised to start camp on Friday and hit the ground running.”

Screen capture from Aug. 6 Zoom call with Mel Tucker
David Harns

With fall camp set to begin tomorrow, Aug. 7, Michigan State Spartans head football coach Mel Tucker was available to speak with the media, via a virtual Zoom call.

Yesterday, the Big Ten announced its new conference-only schedule and confirmed that fall camp is set to begin for all 14 membership schools. Below you will find notes and quotes from Tucker on those topics and more.

“We’re excited to get back to football,” Tucker said to begin the press conference. “However, understanding the health and safety of our players, our coaches and our staff is our number one priority.”

Tucker went on to say that in addition to safety and health concerns, he and the program have been focused on three main pillars: culture, process and connection.

On Culture:

“We have to build a new culture, but at the same time we respect the traditions of Michigan State, and the successes that we’ve had in the past, and all of the great players and great coaches,” Tucker said. “It’s time to establish a new way of doing things, and that’s been a lot of fun.”

On Process

“Our process — you know there’s certain things you have to do to be successful, there’s no magic pill,” Tucker said. “Behavior matters. (Having) a preparation mindset. Our mental disposition of competing. Understanding our language — you know we created a language here, we’re building upon that. You’ll hear us say ‘Be where your feet are’ — we’re working in the here and now, which is very important with so much uncertainty. And we don’t look at the scoreboard. What that means is we have a process, and there’s steps that you have to take. We don’t get too far ahead of ourselves — just focus on the task at hand, always plan the next play, keep chopping wood.”

On Connection

“Our connection has probably been the most challenging, but it’s also been probably the most rewarding up to this point,” Tucker said. “From the (COVID-19) pandemic to social injustice, our team must stick together and support each other. I think the world can learn a lot from a connected football team. I think we’ve all seen that in sports. Football is the ultimate team sport, and I’m not sure if there’s anything better than seeing a cohesive, well put together, unselfish team take the field and compete. We’re building a brotherhood here. From the meeting rooms, the Zoom meeting rooms, to the field, it’s a building process.”

Tucker also noted the importance of a foundation of accountability to keep each other safe and healthy, especially with the current circumstances.

Following his opening comments, Tucker then opened up the Zoom call to questions from reporters. He was asked about a variety of topics.

The first question Tucker was asked was how difficult it has been trying to build a program during his first year at MSU, in the midst of a global pandemic, and also trying to prepare for a season that might not happen.

“Yeah, it’s been a challenge with COVID-19, and some of the racial injustices (such as) the George Floyd situation that we’ve had this summer,” Tucker noted. “But we’ve attacked it. Our coaches have done a tremendous job connecting with players. I didn’t know what Zoom was before COVID, and I think we’ve (now) become Zoom experts. Initially, all of our contact was electronic — Zoom, FaceTime, text, phone calls, maybe even hoping on a video game with a guy and talking to him through a headset — that’s how we connected with our players. That was quite a challenge, but it was a lot of fun, and I think our players appreciated the fact that we were able to do that.

“It’s not just X’s and O’s, we’re able to do some goal-setting, and just really spending time just getting to know each other. Getting to know our family dynamics and what is important to each and every one of us. ‘What is our why?’ ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What’s our purpose?’ Those are things we’ve done to help prepare our guys and connect with our guys. I really like this football team.”

As Tucker mentioned, it’s obviously been a difficult offseason. The team has had limited on-field workouts together and just ended a 14-day team quarantine. In-person interactions between players and coaches have been minimal. Therefore putting together depth charts and noticing players who have stood out have been pretty much impossible tasks for Tucker to wrap his head around at this point.

A point of emphasis Tucker has repeatedly told his team since he took over the program in February was that every player is going to get a chance to compete and earn their spot.

“Everyone here is going to get a fair shake. I told them when I got here that there is a clean slate for every player. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, everyone is starting from ground zero.”

Tucker went on to mention that practices will be organized and players will be grouped, but instead of having a “depth chart,” he is going to call it a “rep chart.” Reps and drills — which include individual drills, group drills, team drills and scrimmages — can change from day-to-day and will be filmed and graded by the coaches. As the coaches are able to see more reps and evaluate each player, then they’ll be able to formulate a proper depth chart heading into the season.

Due to the cancelation of spring ball, the coaches began teaching and installing the new offensive and defensive schemes to the players via Zoom in March. Tucker mentioned that some of the coaches actually felt that from a mental standpoint, they were able to teach the players more than they would have during the spring practice schedule. From a physical standpoint — and in limited opportunities this summer — the staff was able to get more “hands-on” with the players and work technique and fundamentals with their respective positional groups.

“I feel like we’re poised to start camp on Friday and hit the ground running,” Tucker said. “Our guys do have very good knowledge of our teams, so I feel like we should be able to execute on day one.”

Tucker went on to say that he is really just taking things in phases right now. He’s focused on fall camp and isn’t concerned with future operations. He noted that the athletic department, trainers, medical staff and operations staff have done a great job laying out protools to players and organizing practice structures. While Tucker expects things to come up, he also expects a relatively smooth ride.

“I feel very confident in our protocols. We’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our players and staff safe and healthy. We’re following all of the CDC guidelines. Our medical people are driving pretty much everything we do — all of our drill work, all of our setups. Our head trainer and doctors have helped plan those things. From our standpoint, we’re ready to practice, and our players are excited as well.

The conversation then turned to the recent news of senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk opting out of the 2020 season. Panasiuk plans to redshirt this season and complete his career as a Spartan in 2021. Tucker was fully supportive of Panasiuk’s decision, and hinted that a couple other players may soon decide to sit out the season as well.

Getting back to actual on the field procedures, the MSU head coach doesn’t expect a lot of limitations in terms of scheme with the offense, defense or special teams, despite the minimal work the team got in as a group throughout the offseason.

Tucker spoke about how he wants to set the tone for fall camp. The staff has laid out exactly what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it, the drills they’ll do, the rotation of the drills and everything else. Tucker says the infrastructure is in place and all that’s left to have a good camp is effort and enthusiasm.

He also noted the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic causes a lot of stress and anxiety, but MSU is focused on the truth of what is known right now, and they’re going to proceed one day at a time.

Other notes:

Regarding the aforementioned Big Ten schedule release, Tucker had this to say:

“I’m really confident in (Big Ten Commissioner) Kevin Warren and the Big Ten office. There were very valid reasons (for the conference-only slate), which they laid out, and I support that 100 percent. Once the schedule was announced, that’s all we needed. Our players now know who we’re going to play, when we’re going to play them, hopefully. So things are starting to come into focus. I feel good about the process.”

On the quarterback position:

One of the biggest question marks for the Michigan State Spartans football team is at the quarterback position. The starting job is wide open between redshirt junior Rocky Lombardi, redshirt sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.

While Tucker hasn’t gotten to see much of anything from the quarterbacks, he noted that he feels good about the guys who are competing at the spot, and is looking forward to watching them compete.

“What’s going to be important is what we do with the reps we get moving forward,” Tucker said. “I believe that we have enough time to get our quarterbacks and everyone else the reps that they need to put their best foot forward, compete for jobs and to be prepared for the season.

“That’s what we can control — what we can do now with the opportunities in front of us. We’re going to evaluate our guys on everything they do — they’ll get a plus or minus. Our guys are going to compete and we’ll be able to add it up at the end and see how it shakes out.”

On having a team that has a lot to prove:

Another point of emphasis for MSU is that the team is relatively young and inexperienced, and quite frankly, does not have high expectations from the media. However, Tucker is setting the standard high and says his team is “hungry” and “relentless.” He believes the foundation is in place to build the kind of team he wants to have.

On COVID-19 protocols:

“We have protocols in place. If one of our players tests positive, he goes into isolation, obviously.” Tucker said. “Then there’s contact tracings, which is handled by the county. Depending on what the close contact is, that depends on how many guys are going to be in quarantine with that one player who tested positive. We follow those protocols strictly. We do everything we can to take care of those players when they’re in quarantine and in isolation. We make sure they’re tested as they come out, and they’re evaluated and that they’re cleared before they return to play. For the rest of the team, we’re working and preparing. That may happen from time to time and as we’ll handle it as it comes.”

On how practices will run in the beginning:

The first official practice is set to begin tomorrow morning. Just like in a normal year, there is an acclimation period to begin the season with helmets and shorts, and then eventually the team ramps up to full pads. The first four practices will be modified and load management will be important.

Tucker left us with this gem: