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Mel Tucker Notes & Quotes: “If you don’t compete, then you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb”

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

On Tuesday afternoon, Michigan State Spartans head football coach Mel Tucker spoke with the media to provide an update on spring practice and how the team has progressed throughout it.

The Spartans had their second full-team scrimmage of the spring season on Tuesday morning, and Tucker is happy with the strides his program is making.

“I was really pleased with the energy,” Tucker said, regarding the scrimmage. “One thing I really noticed was the communication with the players was a lot better. You could see the confidence. (It was) much louder, a lot more guys talking. There was two-way communication all over the field, and what that does, it just really shows you that guys have more confidence in what they’re doing and they understand the scheme. That’s a really good sign because when you know what to do and you have confidence, you play a lot faster, and when you play faster, you play more physical. Also, our special teams work, our drill work was much-improved.

“All the way around, we’re getting better, and we’re gaining ground,” Tucker added. “We’re not where we need to be yet, but I feel like we’re making steps to get there. Guys are having fun playing the game. We talked in the team meeting this morning about a question that Coach (Tom) Izzo and I talk about quite a bit, and it’s ‘Do you like game, do you love it, or do you live it?’ And so that’s what we’re evaluating. In order to be great, you have to live it. And so we’re taking steps, our team is growing, and this was just another evaluation in practice (number) 10.”

While Tucker mentioned that it is too early to determine starters at most positions — or to even have a depth chart — at this point in the spring, the competition has been heating up throughout the practices and scrimmages.

The coaching staff is still evaluating the talent on the roster, filming practices and grading each player’s performance in drills. Tucker and the other coaches continue to create a competitive atmosphere, and are keeping a close eye on who is standing out in various scenarios.

“We don’t have a set depth chart, it’s really a rep chart, so we do move guys around,” Tucker said. “We shuffle lineups and that’s very good for competition and guys know that we’re going to play the best players. We put them in competitive situations throughout practice. In our drill work, we have some really physical, one-on-one drills and we evaluate them. We film it and we grade it. You have to be able to win a one-on-one, you have to be able to knock people back and you need to be able to compete. If you don’t compete, then you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. We just keep putting them in competitive situations that are up tempo, that are physical. We’re going to keep doing that and we’re going to see who rises to the top.”

When asked about the challenge college coaches may have keeping players with NFL aspirations focused on the current college season, Tucker said the “delivery of the information” — being honest with the player about what the truth is and conveying that information in the best possible way — is key. He wants his players to block out outside noise and focus on the task at hand.

“It’s important for the voices inside of our building to be stronger than the voices outside of the building,” Tucker said.

Tucker and several members of Michigan’s State’s staff have NFL experience as either players or coaches. The staff knows exactly what it takes to make it at the highest level of competition.

“It’s really communication and a lot of one-on-one conversations,” Tucker said about players who are looking forward to the NFL. “As a team, we’re constantly showing these guys what it takes to be the best, showing them what it takes to get to the next level. I told the guys today, I said ‘Everyone in the room wants to play at the next level.’ I coached 10-straight years in the National Football League. I’ve been there and I know what it looks like. I know what the expectations are, I know what the standards are.

“If you want to be at that level, and you want to get the most out of your ability to give yourself the best chance, you have to do more. You have to do more than just what’s required. You have to do extra — before practice, after practice, in the evening, taking care of your body, the nutrition piece, rest and recovery film study — all of that, you have to do more. That will give you a chance.”

Speaking of the coaching staff, Tucker beamed with joy when he was asked a question that allowed him to “brag” about his staff. He is very pleased with the job his assistant coaches have been doing on the field, as well as what the support staff and other members within the program have accomplished with the student athletes’ development off of the field.

“At least right now, we’re undefeated in the spring,” Tucker said. “We have a great staff. I love the staff that we have — offense, defense, special teams, support staff, recruiting staff — everyone does an outstanding job. Very professional, team-oriented, everyone checks their ego at the door. I’m not a micro-manager, they have a job description and clearly-defined roles — everyone knows what they need to do. It’s all about the team, and everything we do around here is centered around the players. We’re here for the student-athletes. We do everything we can to develop them on and off the field, and I feel like our players appreciate that.”

With a very different roster in 2021 compared to the Spartans in the fall of 2020, due to transfer and freshmen coming in, Tucker went into detail about what the culture is like at Michigan State, and how these new players who are coming in during the summer will fit in with the team.

“When (new players) come in, they’re coming into a culture that’s about accountability, attention to detail, sense of urgency, teamwork, straining and being part of something that’s bigger than yourself,” Tucker said. “That’s the culture that we have here. The players that we acquire, the players we recruit, that we bring here, right away they feel that culture. We on-board them, we explain to them what this is all about and how we go about our business on a day-to-day basis. And that’s after a lot of research, and background checks, and character references and things like that, to make sure the players we bring here, they fit into our culture...everybody in the portal isn’t for us.”

Overall, Tucker understands that it is still early into the spring and the team still has a long way to go. This time is being used to teach players the schemes and fundamentals, while instilling that culture that Tucker mentioned.

“We’re still installing on both sides of the ball and special teams, so hopefully we’ll be able to continue to do that,” Tucker said. “The spring is really a time of technique and fundamentals and doing simple, better. You can’t get bored with the fundamentals. That’s the foundation of everything that we do. That’s how you build your team, that’s how you are able to sustain. If you get off track, that’s how you’re able to self-correct and get back on track because you do have a basis of technique fundamentals. And, so really, that is the focus.”

Quarterback competition still too close to call

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne
Michigan State Athletic Communications

As for the quarterback competition, the battle between redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne and graduate transfer Anthony Russo is still raging on, and likely will into carry over into the fall camp. Thorne and Russo have been splitting first-team reps evenly throughout the spring. The other quarterbacks on the roster — redshirt junior Theo Day, redshirt freshman Noah Kim and true freshman Hamp Fay — are also getting plenty of reps.

Tucker says he likes the way the quarterbacks are growing. He likes the competition, but also likes the way the signal-callers are working together as a group. Overall, the progress at the quarterback spot is promising, but it’s too premature to determine who will be the starter to open the 2021 season.

“It’s really too early to tell,” Tucker said about the quarterback competition. “We have some indications of where it is, but we got a long way to go. We’ve got the rest of the spring, we have an entire summer program, and then we’re going to have 25 practices in 29 days unless they change rules. And by the time that first scrimmage shakes out in fall camp, we’ll pretty much have good idea of where we need to be at that position and the other positions.”

Other notes:

  • Tucker said the linebackers group is “thin,” but he really likes how Noah Harvey has stepped up and started leading by example.
  • As for running back Elijah Collins, Tucker noted that Collins has added some weight and gotten stronger. Tucker believes Collins is improving and that his “best football is ahead of him.”
  • Tucker really likes what he sees from wide receivers Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed — they’re stepping up as leaders.
  • The offensive linemen improved from the first scrimmage to the second scrimmage. Tucker noted many of the linemen seem to have been “gaining lean muscle mass.”

Michigan State will have its spring game at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 24. It still has not been determined whether or not fans can attend the event, but the spring game will be televised live on the Big Ten Network.

Mel Tucker’s Full Remarks