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Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker discusses Big Ten football season restart

“I’m just excited to get going and looking forward to get back out on the grass with our guys.”

NCAA Football: Southern California at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As you may have heard by now, Big Ten football is back! In what can only be described as, in my opinion, the absolute strangest period of time between the 2019 and 2020 football seasons, we finally have some clarity on what next steps are for the Michigan State Spartans and the Big Ten Conference as a whole.

After advances with rapid COVID-19 testing and other protocols now in place, competition will resume for Big Ten teams on the weekend of Oct. 23. This, of course, was a reversal on the conference’s decision to shut down the fall campaign — with an eye toward playing in the spring — on Aug. 11. There are still a lot of questions to be answered, and nothing is written in stone that this target start date will be hit and there will be no disruptions during the season.

With that said, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker spoke on a Zoom call today, with members of the media, about football’s return and the latest developments within the MSU program.

“I’m very excited to get going for our players, for our staff, for the (players’) families, our university, our fans and all of our supporters,” Tucker opened his statement with. “I want to thank the Big Ten medical task force for all of the work that they’ve done to help us get to this point. We’ve always said from the beginning that we want to play in the worst way, but we wanted to make sure the safety and well-being of our student-athletes, staff and administrators were at the forefront, and that was the first thing. So, we had new information and I was thankful for (the Big Ten) presidents to revisit the issue and based upon that new information from our medical folks, the presidents feel like, and everyone feels like, it’s safe for us to proceed and play. We’re very excited about that.

“Our players have been working relentlessly since the postponement. I think the postponement was on a Tuesday, and our players were back in the weight room at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning. So we’ve gotten a good, solid five weeks of running and lifting. We’re actually in better condition now then we were when we started camp previously before the postponement. I’m just excited to get going and looking forward to get back out on the grass with our guys.”

Obviously, dealing with a pandemic for the past several months has been bizarre for just about every person. But for Tucker, who was hired in February to lead the Spartans, he’s yet to really get a chance to begin his tenure and show fans what the new-look Spartans bring to the table.

When asked about what this process has been like during the COVID-19 pandemic for him, and what has it been like for the team, Tucker had this to say:

“It’s been very different — different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Tucker said. “But what we’ve learned during this process of COVID is you really have to take it one day at a time. We always knew that we wanted to play and we always knew at some point that we would be able to play, we just didn’t exactly know when. When that time did come, when the time was right, we wanted to be ready.

“We always operate on the information that we do have, and based on the information that we had that day, we tried to get it right that day with whatever we were doing. Our attitudes of our coaching staff and our players have been great. We work really hard to connect and communicate with our players to give them the most up-to-date information. Since mid-June, we’ve had seven Zoom meetings with all of the parents, and I believe that has helped quite a bit just to make sure everyone’s on the same page and the lines of communication have been open constantly.”

In addition to the problems that the ongoing pandemic causes for not only Michigan State, but football programs across the country, there is another issue that the sports world — especially the NBA and NFL — have really stepped up to speak out on and show support of. That is, of course, social justice issues, which have really come to light throughout the summer.

Tucker was adamant that the Michigan State program is doing all it can to educate and support its players and staff about the injustice issues going on around them. With several initiatives and programs in place, MSU wants to put words into action.

“Communication, education and resources are what we talked about all summer. We really worked hard to connect with our players, to support our players. We’ve had several meetings with all of our players so guys could express how they feel about things, and also the coaches express how they feel about social injustice and the things that have transpired over the spring and summer. Just by doing that and making sure the players know that we are supporting them, that has gone a long way, I believe.

“And not only that, but also some of the initiatives that we’ve implemented in terms of the education and the resources that we have provided because our players want action, not just statements and words. So, there’s been quite a bit of programming on our side, with our team — guest speakers and things of that nature. Whether it’s mental health, financial literary, civil engagement, all of those things, all of the peoples and those discussions, have really helped empower our players, educate our players. They know they have a platform, they know we’re going to support them and they all know where I stand. You can’t lead a team if your team doesn’t know where you stand. I’ve communicated that on several occasions to our players, and it’s a constant daily dialogue. My door is always open. I feel really good about how we dealt with this and how we communicate with our players, but it’s a work in progress and it’s a daily process, and something that we’re going to continue to work on.”

Tucker hit on several other topics he was asked about. Perhaps most notably is the upcoming practice schedule for the Spartans.

Based on what Tucker said on the Zoom call, he is expecting roughly the following timeline:

Today (Thursday) and tomorrow (Friday): lift and run, conditioning by position, 11-on-11 formation recognition work and seven-on-seven drills. Offensive and defensive line work with positional coaches during seven-on-seven. This was already planned prior to the Big Ten’s announcement.

Saturday: film session, extensive stretch and flexibility/recovery workout with a walk-through practice. During the afternoon, MSU also plans to have a Zoom meeting with players and their parents to go over the practice plan moving forward. The Saturday schedule, and next week’s plan, had changed for MSU once the Big Ten announcement came through.

Sunday: off day

Monday: “More normal” football practice — I would guess this is likely in shorts and helmets.

Moving forward, the team will manage player practice loads and slowly ramp up to the first full-padded practice, which is expected to be on Wednesday, Sept. 30.

Other notes:

On players opting-out or those who have already opted out opting back in:

“I don’t have any updates today, but obviously within the next few days that will all shake out,” Tucker said. “If there’s any opt-outs, that should be settled here probably within the next few days or so and we’ll know more then. My stance has not changed. We’re going to support our players, regardless, whether they opt-in or they’ve opted out. Everyone has a different circumstance and we respect that and we’re supporting our players 100 percent with whatever they decide to do.

How much he knows about the team (given limited time together) and what he still needs to learn about the team:

“I learn something new every day,” Tucker said. “Just working hard to connect with our players, and also with coaches that I haven’t gone through a season with before. It’s a process of getting to know (them). There’s still a lot of evaluation that needs to take place on the football field, but the things that I do know is we have a great bunch of guys that are high-character guys, that love football (and) that like to work hard. They love what we’re doing in the weight room. They’ve embraced our new coaching staff and our schemes on offense, defense and special teams, and they’re excited to play. We’ll continue to evaluate as we get on the practice field and we’ll get to know our players better and better every day.”

On the extra preparation time during the postponement period:

“We just wanna make the most of all the opportunities that we have — whether it’s in-season or out of season or we’re playing or not,” Tucker said. “We’ve taken full advantage of the time that we’ve have. We put our players right back in the weight room with (head strength and conditioning) Coach (Jason) Novak and his staff, running and lifting, and they’ve embraced that. We feel like our team is in better condition than they were five weeks ago, and that’s been a positive. Then we continue to reach out and connect with our players and their parents and keeping them up to date and engaged, and letting them know we’re here for them and we care about them.

“Obviously, academics is a part of what we’re doing now. Players have an academic load as well as an athletic load, and are balancing those two (things), and we are supporting them every way we can. I’ve been really impressed and proud of our coaching staff and our administration, with our team doctors and our trainers, everyone’s been just really focused on the student-athlete and their well-being. We’ve worked really hard to be on the same page and be aligned and keep the student-athlete front and center.

“(Michigan State) President (Samuel) Stanley just a couple days ago got on a call with the players and parents and expressed his views about returning to play and how he felt and the excitement and anticipation that he had. He felt like we were in a good place here at Michigan State in terms of moving forward. So we’ve been completely aligned from President Stanley all the way down. That has helped our players as well, just knowing that we’re all on the same page with their health and well-being always remaining in the forefront.”

On the uncertainty that’s ahead this season, even though it’s moving forward:

“The uncertainty is part of the norm,” Tucker said. “I believe you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. We deal with it day by day, as things come. We don’t try to get into the hypotheticals of what if this and what if that. We have protocols in place that we feel are tremendous, and we trust our medical folks. We’re going to follow our protocols to the best of our ability. Behavior modification is something that we talk about constantly with our players. We’re going to move forward fully and be ready to adapt and change and adjust as needed going throughout this season.”

On “relief” about the season being back and opportunity to get real excitement going:

“I’m really exited about the season, I’m excited that our fans will get a chance to enjoy Spartan football again,” Tucker said. “Even though it won’t be in the stadium, they’ll still be able to support us and see what we have. Our plan is to put our best foot forward week-in and week-out.

“I don’t believe in ‘relief.’ That’s just not part of something that I believe in. Even though we haven’t had the green light to play, every day there’s work to be done on the football side of it. We’ve been super busy connecting with our players, continuing to develop our schemes on offense, defense and special teams. Working with our medical folks, working on our protocols and making sure we’re aligned there. We knew that at some point that we would would have the opportunity to play, we just didn’t know when it would be. Once we got the green light, we flipped into that mode, but there was really no element of ‘relief’ so to speak.”

On mental health resources for players during these odd times:

“The mental health of our players is something that we had talked to them about,” Tucker said. “We’ve had mental health practitioners talk to our players as a team. We have tremendous resources here at Michigan State that are available to our players. We make sure that we know how to get our players to those professionals when need be. The players know what resources are available, they know how to get to them. We understand that is an issue and we work hard to address it. Again, the safety, health and well-being of our athletes is our number one concern.”

On Tucker’s level-headed approach:

I just believe in neutral thinking,” Tucker said. “Not getting too high and not getting too low, and just taking things how they come. Really focusing on what the facts are and what is the truth. Then taking that information and deciding based on what I know right now, what do I need to do next, and how can we get it right today. That’s the approach that I take to everything. It’s important for me to be consistent in my demeanor and my approach, so that my staff and my players know exactly what they’re going to get from me day-in and day-out.”

One last thing: