Michigan State Spartans head football coach Mel Tucker met with the media on Tuesday to provide an update on spring football practice.
Michigan State held its first team scrimmage of the spring season this past Saturday. Tucker was pleased with what he saw from his team — the first time this spring the Spartans were able to go “live to the ground.” While the head coach likes the progress from his squad, there is still plenty of ways it needs to improve.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker now speaking:— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) April 6, 2021
He liked the competitiveness, technique and fundamentals he saw from his team in this weekend’s scrimmage. The running game looked good and the quarterbacks were efficient.
Tucker adds the communication was much-improved.
“I thought the scrimmage was very competitive, it was a physical scrimmage,” Tucker said. “I really liked the way our guys competed. It was a cleaner brand of football than what we had been playing previously. We put an emphasis on technique and fundamentals up until this point, doing simple, better, and there was a conscious effort from our players to do that — play with discipline, play with good pad level, great hand placement, footwork, being physical, just playing clean, fundamental football, and playing fast.
“You need to know what to do, how to do it and why it’s important to do it that way. So, our guys are really consciously trying to strain and do what we ask them to do, which is critically important.”
Tucker noted that the Spartans did not keep score in the scrimmage, but kept track of stats to try to meet certain goals on both sides of the ball. Michigan State worked on a lot of situational football (down-and-distance, red zone, two-minute drill, etc.) during the scrimmage. He said the team ran the football a lot and the offensive line looked strong coming off of the snap. Tucker added that the quarterbacks were efficient and took what the defense gave them. Defensively, Tucker liked the way his unit set the edge, how it is continuing to improve its technique and how the secondary improved in run support as the scrimmage went on. He also said the communication within the entire team is getting better.
While Tucker appreciates the effort his team has put in throughout the spring thus far, he had a very clear message for anybody who doesn’t want to be here or put in the necessary work to meet the Spartans’ standards.
“After practice 15 we’ll see where we are, but I’ve talked to (our team) about the aggregation of marginal gains,” Tucker said. “Everyone get two percent better, one or two percent better every day, and it adds up, and we can just keep moving forward and improving our football team, and after practice 15, we’ll see where we are. I’m not interested in going into the summer with anyone who’s not willing to play or not able to play the type of football that we need to play here. Every day is an opportunity to show what you’re all about and how much you’ve learned and can you improve.”
Tucker reiterated that the program is heading in the right direction, but that it is a “process” and that the foundation is just now being built. He expects the Spartans to continue to get better throughout the spring, and heading into the summer and fall. A culture of family, discipline, accountability and competition, among other things, is what the coaching staff wants to continue to cultivate at Michigan State.
“Pain and pressure is what really moves the needle for our guys,” Tucker says.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) April 6, 2021
“I like the way we’re working, but we do need to keep raising the bar and get as much out of these guys and we can,” Tucker said. “We’re putting pressure on the coaches to make sure that we’re getting it done the way we need to get it done because the lowest level of performance that you accept as a coach, that will become your culture. We’re not letting anything slide and giving guys an opportunity to show that they can perform at the level that we need and do it exactly the way we want it. We’ll find out as we go who can do that.”
“Pain and pressure is really what moves the needle with guys,” Tucker added. “So, we’re making our practices as difficult as they can be — putting pressure on guys to compete in situations to see what they can do. We’re getting a lot of work done in a short period of time. We don’t have a day to waste, so we’re just going to keep the trains on the track and keep it going.”
While the spring roster is the core of what we can expect from Michigan State’s fall roster, it is far from being a complete. A new wave of players — a mix of high school recruits, transfers and possibly more walk-on players — will join the team in the summer.
When asked about how the new players, coming in from high school or other universities/colleges, will fit in with the culture at Michigan State, Tucker said the staff has studied these student-athletes and that he is confident they’ll fit in and come ready to work.
“There’s going to be a significant amount of new players coming in (this summer),” Tucker said. “So, the team that we see right now, the team that we will see in the spring game or practice 15 is not the team that we’ll even have during our summer program. We’re constantly working to build our team, bring guys together, and get the buy-in. But coming out of the spring, I need to know exactly where everyone is and if it’s gonna work here for you or not, and that’s what we’re doing. For the most part, what I’m seeing is guys at this point understanding ‘This is what is required.’ It takes what it takes, there’s no shortcuts, there’s no way around it. Football’s a simple game, and just do what the coaches tell you to do — have a ‘coach me, coach’ attitude and get out there and get it done.”
Speaking of building the team, Tucker hit on the importance of building the team through the trenches, with the offensive and defensive lines, or the philosophy of building your teams from the “inside out.” While every position is important, the game is won and lost at the line of scrimmage. It’s easy to see how Tucker and his staff members have gone after a lot of offensive and defensive linemen in their recruiting efforts, with an emphasis on size.
“The game is won and loss in the trenches,” Tucker says. He adds that building the team through the offensive line and defensive line is important and the staff puts an emphasis on that.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) April 6, 2021
Tucker wants to generate pressure with four defensive linemen, but will blitz when needed.
“The purpose of recruiting is to improve your team,” Tucker said. “Every time we recruit a player, we expect that player to help that (particular) unit. But, by all means, the game is won and lost in the trenches. So, we want to make sure that we’re strong on our offensive line, we’re strong on our defensive line.
“I believe in being strong up the middle — like baseball, you’ve got the catcher, the pitcher, shortstop, second base, center fielder — you need to be strong down the middle. Same thing on offense and defense (in football) — we want to be stout in the middle, so that we can control the line of scrimmage, be able to run the ball on our terms and then be able to stop the run on defense and make people one-dimensional. That’s been a point of emphasis for us.”
Quarterback competition in full swing:
One of the biggest position battles this spring, and likely into fall camp, is at the quarterback position. The two leading candidates to get the starting nod for the Spartans in 2021 are graduate transfer Anthony Russo, and redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne.
Tucker praised both players, saying that Thorne is a “go-getter,” has a good grasp of the offense, works hard on his craft, is a leader and competitor. As for Russo, Tucker complimented his maturity, pocket presence and arm strength, while also noting that the Temple transfer is getting a better understanding of the offense every time he goes out to the practice field.
Both Thorne and Russo spoke on Tuesday. It was the first time Russo met with the Michigan State media since coming to East Lansing.
As for Thorne’s thoughts on the coaching staff bringing Russo into the fold, he had this to say:
“I think that the competition brings out the best in a lot of guys,” Thorne said. “You got a decision to make when a guy’s coming in like that as to how you’re going to respond to it. I think that you got to respond to it in a certain way, and you just got to put your head down and work. And I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing lately. You gotta keep showing up every day and prove yourself every day.”
Thorne was able to play in four games in the 2020 season, including one start against Penn State. He completed 48 passes on 85 attempts (56.4 percent) for 562 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Thorne said that on-field experience was valuable to him, but also that he feels that he is in a much better place both physically (strength and speed) and mentally (with grasping the offense), now throughout spring ball compared to where he was in the fall.
While he appreciates the competition with Russo and the other quarterbacks in the room, Thorne — whose father and grandfather are both football coaches — knows that his biggest competition is himself.
Thorne says that his dad and grandpa, who are both football coaches, have given him good advice. He adds that he just tries to be himself and not try to be something that he is not.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) April 6, 2021
“I’m comparing myself to myself,” Thorne says about comparing his play to others.
“I’m comparing myself against myself,” Thorne said. “And I think that if you get caught up in the comparison game, you start to focus on the wrong things. I’m just trying to get better every day with my play, and I think that’s the first step.”
As for Russo, he decided to leave Temple because he didn’t feel as if he was progressing the way he should be there. Once Russo entered the transfer portal, it only took him about two weeks to decide on the Spartans. Tucker and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson sold Russo on his fit in the offense, their ability to get him prepared for the NFL and the family atmosphere at Michigan State.
Russo called the decision to transfer to MSU a “no-brainer.” He says that his new teammates have been extremely welcoming, and that he is also sees the competition with Thorne and the other quarterbacks in the room as a positive.
Russo says Payton Thorne is a “super smart quarterback,” has a strong arm, and moves well in the pocket.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) April 6, 2021
He adds that Thorne has helped him out and vice versa. Also says the bond in the QB room is strong.
“The more we push each other, the better we will be,” Russo says.
“I think the most important thing in any competition, especially at the quarterback position, is just understanding at the end of the day, we’re one team, we’re one heartbeat,” Russo said. “We all have that one, same goal of winning a Big Ten championship. And bringing Michigan State back to where it has been in the past. I think just reminding ourselves that although we are competing with one another, we’re there to make each other better. And at the end of the day, the more we push each other, the more we’re going to grow on the field and off the field and the better we will be at at our position and a better team we will be.
“You can’t control how other guys practice, what they do,” Russo added. “All you can control every day is how hard you work, how well you prepare, your attitude, your energy that you have bring to practice — those are the things that you have control of every single day. So, those are the things that I try and focus on because one of my biggest things that I’ve always said to myself is ‘control what you can control.’”
Russo, who is now roommates with running back Kenneth Walker III (a fellow transfer), played in 31 career games (26 starts) at Temple. He completed 536 passes for 899 attempts (59.6 percent) for 6,292 yards, 44 touchdown passes and 32 interceptions, while adding 30 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on the ground.
To hear the full comments from Tucker, Thorne and Russo, please watch the videos below.