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Mel Tucker at the Big Ten Media Days Round Table: “We have to be consciously competent”

During the individual podium afternoon session, Coach Tucker was able to give his thoughts on the current state of MSU’s program, leadership, competition, roster management, COVID, NIL and sugar weasels.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Following Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker’s televised press conference, members of the media had a chance to go more in depth with Coach Tucker during the hour-long podium session in the afternoon.

Coach Tucker was able to expand on several of the topics that he mentioned in his opening monologue. He updated the media on his view of the current state of the program and his personal philosophy. He also talked a bit about some of the hot topics of the summer, including name, image and likeness, COVID vaccinations, and the proposed 12-team playoff.

The State of State

Coach Tucker seems to have a clear image of the type of program that he wants to build at Michigan State and how he wants to build it. There are several key words and phrases that Tucker repeated multiple times throughout the afternoon: “attention to detail,” “culture,” “process,” “accountability,” “toughness,” “competition” and “consistency.” It is clear that these concepts will form the cornerstone of Coach Tucker’s program going forward.

It is clear that Tucker and his staff have reflected on what went wrong during the 2020 season and that they have a laser-like focus on how to make improvements. He summed things up as follows:

“We’ve never made any excuses, ever,” Tucker said. “No excuses and no explanations for what happened last season. We evaluated it, and then we owned it, and then we moved forward. What we have to become is consciously competent. That’s how we want to get the consistency and performance that we need to be successful. And what that means is that we execute behaviors that lead to positive outcomes and then understand the why.”

Coach Tucker continued, “Why were we able to win? Why were we able to move the ball? Why we were able to take care of the football? Why were we able to stop people? If you can understand it, then you can repeat it, and you can become more consistent.

“A year ago, we would have some success, but quite frankly, I don’t think we understood the ‘why’ as to what was happening, and so it was not repeatable. Once you understand that, you can repeat it.”

As for where the program is now, Coach Tucker said, “We are light-years ahead of where we were a year ago in terms of knowing our players. We know who we have and what they can be...And we’ve had a great offseason conditioning program in the winter, very, very productive spring football, and then our summer programs that have been outstanding.

“So, at this point, I feel like we have a team. It’s not just a collection of players, but it’s a team that is united, are ready to prove themselves and get it done in fall camp. Only time will tell how good we’ll be. But our goal is to be the best versions of ourselves.”

Leadership and Competition

Two main threads were woven through the hour-long discussion with Coach Tucker: leadership and competition.

On the topic of leadership, Tucker clearly likes what he is seeing in the locker room. He even went so far as to borrow another “Tom Izzo-ism” in his description of his roster. Tucker said, “We’re gradually moving toward a player-led team. Leaders are starting to emerge...Some guys started stepping up, they understand what it takes. They feel confident about what they can do, and they feel confident about bringing someone else along.”

When it came to naming which players were displaying the most leadership, the first player mentioned was one of the trio of players that accompanied Tucker to Indianapolis: senior safety Xavier Henderson.

“Guys like X are very, very important,” Tucker said. “And I’ll tell you what, he’s an outstanding leader. He’s a great person, a great teammate. He’s one of those guys that when you are talking about ‘What is a Spartan? What are the characteristics?’ He’s one of those guys.”

Will Henderson be named as captain this fall? It seems likely, but last year Tucker opted to use a rotation of game-day captains instead of a set of permanent ones. When asked whether that would be the plan again is 2021, Tucker merely said, “we do not know yet at this time.”

On the topic of competition, Coach Tucker made it clear that competition at all spots was going to be “wide open” in the fall. In Tucker’s mind, competition is everything.

“If you don’t like competition, if you don’t embrace competition, whether you are a leader or not, you can’t be on our roster,” Tucker said.

He added, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link and we want to develop our roster from from the bottom up. We need as many guys to get ready to play as possible.” Compared to last year at this time, Tucker said “We feel like overall we have a more talented and a deeper and more competitive roster.”

When it came to individual positions, Coach Tucker did not tip his hand as to which players might currently have the upper hand for the starting spot at key positions such as quarterback, defensive back, and running back, Tucker merely said, “the best players are going to play.”

As for the quarterback position specifically and the brewing battle for the starting job between sophomore Payton Thorne and graduate student/Temple transfer Anthony Russo, Tucker said, “Your quarterback needs to be your number one competitor on your team. And both of those guys are elite competitors.”

Roster Management

It is no secret that Michigan State has had a lot of player turnover since the fall of 2020. Between transfers and incoming freshman, there are a total of 34 new faces in the Spartan football program this year. By all accounts, this transition has been a good one for the large group of transfers into the program.

“We have indoctrinated them into our culture and into our program,” Tucker said. He added later, “The transition has been smooth. it’s been very gratifying to see so many guys coming together in a short period of time.”

It was even suggested that Coach Tucker’s experience with free agency during his time as a coach in the NFL was a benefit in coping with the current college transfer portal. In many ways, Tucker agreed.

“We’ve set our personnel department up very similar to an NFL personnel department,” Tucker said.

MSU has staff that monitor the transfer portal, the junior college ranks, as well as traditional high school recruiting, similar to the way NFL teams monitor both the college ranks as well as the free agent market.

But, despite the Spartans’ heavy usage of the portal in 2021, Coach Tucker made it clear that this is not the primary way in which he plans to build his roster going forward.

“Make no mistake about it, we want to build our team from the high school ranks...However, we will supplement our roster and complement our roster with players from the portal who are a good fit for us,” Tucker said.

Tucker then made it clear that when it comes to high school recruiting, the effort starts in the state of Michigan and branches out from there.

Other Odds and Ends

In the hour long session, Coach Tucker touched on several other topics as well.

On the hot subject of name, image and likeness (NIL), Tucker said that MSU is embracing NIL and “Doing everything that we can to provide the resources to educate our players so that we can put them into the best position to capitalize on their name, image and likeness.”

Regarding NIL, Coach Tucker went on to say, “But it is still really early and there are a lot of unknowns, a lot of unintended consequences that we are going to see, both good and bad.” As for those potential consequences, Tucker did mention “distractions” and “team chemistry,” but in general he said, “I really don’t know what they are...and worrying about these things that haven’t haven’t happened yet is really not the best use of my time.”

When Coach Tucker was asked about COVID-19 protocols for the fall, he revealed that about 90 percent of the team is fully vaccinated.

“We’re encouraging our players to get vaccinated and it’s all about education and individual conversations,” Tucker said. “Our players who are vaccinated will get tested only if they are symptomatic. For the players who are not vaccinated, we have a spit test and those players will get tested six days a week.”

At one point in the session, Tucker was asked to reflect on his decision to become MSU’s head coach.

“That was the most difficult decision that I have ever had to make professionally,” Tucker said. “But the transition was smooth. I started my career here (at Michigan State) in 1997. I am from Cleveland, I’m a Midwest guy...I’m a Big Ten guy. I played at Wisconsin. My wife is from Chicago. She went to Illinois and she went to Rutgers for law school. So we’re Big Ten folks, and this is home for us. So when I stepped foot off that plane, I knew that I was in the right place. I knew I made the right decision.”

In Tucker’s initial podium time earlier in the day on Friday, he had mentioned that Michigan State is his “dream job.”

Coach Tucker was also asked about whether he was supportive of players such as incoming freshman wide receiver Keon Coleman and sophomore tight end Purdue transfer Maliq Carr also playing basketball. His answer was simple: “Have at it.” Tucker mentioned that junior tight end Adam Berghorst also plays baseball and that when he coached at Alabama, most of his secondary ran track. “I am good with it,” he added.

Regarding the proposed expansion of the playoffs to 12 teams, Tucker said, “I am all for giving players more opportunity to win a championship, because that is what they all want to do.”

Finally, the most amusing point of the session came when Coach Tucker was asked to comment on defensive back Angelo Grose and his transition to the safety position. Apparently, Tucker has multiple nicknames for the sophomore. He said, “Yeah Jello, that’s my guy. I call him the ‘Sugar Weasel.’”

Fortunately for Grose, Tucker went on to say, “He’s a relentless competitor. He has tremendous range. He’s got very good instincts and he loves football. Football is important to him. He’s a good teammate...he’s a physical player. And he’s a guy that learns. He has got a high football IQ and he learns quickly. He usually doesn’t make the same mistake twice. So, he’s a guy that can play multiple positions. He’s going to provide our brains in our back end.”

I guess if Coach Tucker says that about you, he can give you whatever nickname he wants.

Stay tuned for continuing coverage of Big Ten Media Days, here on The Only Colors. Go Green! (But don’t say that out loud while at Media Days. That would be unprofessional.)