The Michigan State Spartans took to the field of Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon for the annual “spring game.” Head coach Mel Tucker decided to showcase his Spartans a bit differently than in most springs, however.
The “game” was more of a structured practice that gave fans and the Big Ten Network viewers a chance to see a series of individual and team drills, culminating with five periods of an 11-on-11 scrimmage.
Following the game, Coach Tucker met with members of media via Zoom, along with graduate student defensive end Drew Beesly, graduate transfer quarterback Anthony Russo, and redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne.
They each provided their general thoughts on the spring practice season, what it was like to play in front of fans again, and some of the emphasis on tempo and play-action that was evident in “practice 15” on Saturday afternoon in Spartan Stadium.
Reflections on Springtime
Coach Tucker, as well as all three student-athletes, commented on the importance getting the chance to practice and play together as a team in 2021 after the upside-down nature of the 2020 spring and season due to COVID-19.
When Coach Tucker was asked what the spring practice season meant to him and what they were able to accomplish as a team, he summed it up by saying the following:
“Spring practice is a way to come out of our winter conditioning program, and then get on the field, and just get better as a football team,” Tucker noted.
Tucker continued, “We focus on being in the best condition. We’re really focused on improving our technique and fundamentals. We want our players to play fast, and they play fastest when they know what to do. And so it’s about teaching, motivating, developing, knowing when our guys play smart.
“It was the aggregation of marginal gains, so we kept preaching, relentlessly, just every day each guy getting one or two percent better each day, every time they were out. And then if you can do that collectively, that’s how you have significant improvements...Our culture is being cemented right now, our practice culture, on the field and off the field, as we as we grow together as a team, so I felt like we got a lot done this spring.”
When asked about his main takeaways and impressions of the spring season, Drew Beesley had this to say:
“There’s definitely a lot of new faces to the program and I think we really got a chance to get them acclimated,” Beesely said. “With missing spring ball last season, we had to go from scratch right into the fall.”
Beesley went on to say, “We really benefited this spring, learning and understanding what to do and why we are doing it...Guys were focusing on doing their job and doing their one-eleventh, and when you put all the pieces to the puzzle, good things happen. I really think that the new-comers and the young guys are starting to understand what that means.”
For quarterback Payton Thorne, this spring has been a chance to find his comfort zone, confidence, and leadership that he hopes to bring to this team. One thing that Thorne seems to have learned is the importance of being true to yourself.
“You got to just be yourself,” Thorne said. “When you try to be something that you are not, people can tell, especially teammates when you are with them all of the time. So I am just focused on being me and doing the things that I have been taught throughout my life and encouraging guys...The job of a leader is to get the best out of the guys around you. So moving forward that is what I am going to continue to do.”
As for Thorne’s main competition at the quarterback position, Anthony Russo, he also has experienced a lot of growth this spring. As a graduate transfer from Temple, however, he had to basically start over from scratch to learn the new offense.
When asked about where he was in comparison to when he arrived in East Lansing in January, Russo said, “It is night and day from where I was. When I first got here in January, my main things were trying to learn formations, learn snap counts, and learn just the super basic stuff. From then until now, I think that I am light years ahead.”
Russo went on to say that he still needs to continue to enhance his knowledge and to master the Spartan offense. He plans to put in the work over the summer so that he can take another huge leap between now and the start of fall camp. Russo plans to spend a lot of time studying film, which is something Russo says he loves to do.
“I am a film junkie,” Russo said. “I could sit in the film room for hours. That is right up my alley.”
“GO GREEN! GO WHITE!”
For the first time since the fall of 2019, fans were allowed inside of Spartan Stadium to watch the Green and White play live. They were also join by members of the Spartan Marching Band and the Spartan cheerleaders, as well as Sparty. While the crowd size was a mere 6,000 and while the band spaced out to fill an entire section, the energy in the air was still electric.
The atmosphere was one of the first things that Coach Tucker mentioned.
“It was incredible to have our fans out there and the band and the cheer team,” Tucker said. “That was something that we were all looking forward to just getting back to normal.”
Tucker went on to say, “You can tell there was a little extra pep in their (the players’) step, seeing the fans out there. Our fans are so important to us, they are so passionate about the Green and White and Spartan football. That’s what Michigan State football is all about, just playing hard-nosed football, just everybody moving in the same direction, just pulling for the Spartans. It was excellent to see our fans back out there.”
Drew Beesley agreed, saying, “I feel like with fans being there it gave our guys an extra boost. They are the greatest fans in the world. We missed them very much. We missed the Go Green, Go White chants. You couldn’t ask for a better time than the spring game in the woodshed (Spartan Stadium). So, energy was up and our guys had fun today.”
Payton Thorne also enjoyed having the Spartan faithful back: “It was great to have fans back today. Even if it wasn’t that many, we will definitely take it. It was fun to have them back and the band back, especially. Hearing that noise just makes it feel like you are at a football game again... It was fun.”
But the chance to play in Spartan Stadium in front of a live audience seemed to impact Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo the most.
“It was a dream come true to be able to be in there with the fans, with the Spartan faithful, and with family and friends there as well,” Russo said.
Russo continued, “The energy that was in the stadium today, even at the limited capacity, it was infectious. You felt it when you were out there, you could hear it when you were out there. It was motivating us guys on the field to just keep going harder and keep working...It was a dream come through for me.”
Tempo and Play-action
Due to the nature of this year’s spring practice format, is was a little difficult to detect any major new trends in offensive or defensive strategies or tendencies. That said, two things did stand out.
First, at times, the Spartan offense seems to play at an extremely fast tempo. That showed up at times during the early phases on the practice that focused more on position groups and situational drills. Then, during the live scrimmage, MSU specifically drilled a rapid tempo two-minute drill late.
When asked about this quick tempo, Coach Tucker said, “It was a great way to get this practice going and start with a fast tempo and guys getting the signals getting lined up. It’s just something that we do quite a bit, and that’s just kind of the way that we operate. So it’s just a really good way to get things started.”
Payton Thorne suggested that working on tempo was something that the offense does regularly in practice.
“You’ve got to be able to push tempo and change tempo,” Thorne said. “It’s tough on a defense, It’s something that we really got to get comfortable with. Everyone’s got to get lined up quick, and the quicker you line up, the easier it is because it gives you more time to read the defense and see that they are doing.”
Thorne went on to say, “It is definitely something that we are stressing...Tempo comes with everything we do right now: in the weight room, running, all that stuff. Every day, tempo is essential.”
Anthony Russo also likes playing with tempo, saying, “I love the tempo. Coach Tucker brings a ton of energy every day to practice, and I think that it is very infectious...We feed off of that. As for the tempo of the offense, I love it. I think that Coach (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, Jay) Johnson does a good job with different formations, different motions, different presentations of different plays.”
Drew Beesley saw the clear benefit for the Spartan defense in practicing against an offense that tried to snap the ball quickly.
“Teams are going to try to catch you off guard and get you in the wrong position,” Beesely said. “So, being able to get the call and get lined up is a huge skill that you need to have when you go against fast, tempo teams...Being able to just think quick and think off of the top of your head and know what to do right away...is the main thing right there.”
The second trend was the effectiveness and eagerness to use play-action to set up big pass plays. Russo, Thorne, and even redshirt freshman Noah Kim connected on long passes set-up by a run fake. There was even some indication that MSU’s improving run game would make the threat of play-action all that much more serious in the fall.
Once again, Coach Tucker mentioned that establishing the run to set up the pass would be an important part of the Spartan offense in 2021.
“We need to be able to run the ball and keep the defense honest...and that makes the play-action game more effective,” Tucker said.
Other Notable Quotes
Here is a sampling of some of the other topics covered in the final press conference on the Spring season.
Coach Tucker did not go into a lot of detail about each player, but a few players did come up, and here is what he said on each:
- As for Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker: “He’s a complete player...He does an excellent job running the ball, and ball security, and he can make guys miss. He runs with power as well and he does a great job in pass protection. He knows what to do...and so he’s a great addition to our football team.”
- As for sophomore wide receiver Ian Stewart: “He has done a really nice job; he’s a very hard worker. You know, we moved him to tight end last season for a little bit, and we moved him back to receiver. He’s got a big body. He’s got good hands, plays really hard, and so it’s always good to see those young guys step up and make some plays.”
- As for sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski: “Pietro is a hard charging guy from the westside of Cleveland. He comes from a really good football background. You talk about guys that like football and love football, and live football. He’s a guy that lives football and it’s important to him. He never takes a play off. He’s a strong guy and he gives relentless effort. That is what Spartan football is all about. Hard-nosed rugged guys that love the game.”
- As for redshirt freshman defensive tackle Simeon Barrow: “He is continuing to get better. He’s got some initial quickness and he is stout in the run game. We see where he can really help us and be part of our rotation as long as he continues to get better and continues to improve. I like what I’m seeing from him.”
- As for redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay: “Cal has a lot reps and he comes from a really good background. He is a smart player and he really loves to play. He is a good teammate and guys respect the way he works. He is a guy that needs to continue to develop. That’s why it’s so important to get these practices in, so these guys can develop and continue to grow.”
- As for the quarterback competition, Coach Tucker did not tip his hand at all as to who might get the starting job this fall. He said, “I thought they all showed some good things, and made some good throws, made some good decisions. I am sure we had a couple throws we would like to have back. But just overall, I thought they were efficient, that they ran the offense, and took what the defense gave us. You can see where I feel good about that position. I feel like we’re gonna have really good production from the quarterback position this season.”
As for additional interesting quotes:
- Payton Thorne mentioned that having to learn the offense through Zoom last year might have actually been a blessing in disguise of sorts, as it forced him to focus more on the mental aspects of the game. “We got so down into the detail of the offense (over Zoom last spring and summer) and I think that was beneficial, and I think that has carried over into this spring,” he said.
- When Thorne was asked about players on the defense who stood out to him as having improved the most since last fall, there was one name that can to mind almost instantly: Michael Dowell. That said, that might have to do with the interception that Dowell had on Thorne during the scrimmage, but Thorne noted that Dowell has been making plays all throughout spring ball.
- The funniest part of the press conference was when Anthony Russo talked about being a pocket passer versus a running quarterback. While Russo is not a statue, he is more of a pocket passer and he owns it; “I get my scholarship paid for to stand in the pocket and to make throws and get the ball to the wide receivers.”
Check out the full video interviews of Coach Mel Tucker and three Spartan athletes below.