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Notes & Quotes: Mel Tucker says, “I’m feeling good about our preparation to this point.”

On Tuesday, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker gave his final press conference prior to Friday’s opener at Northwestern. No, he did not say who will start at quarterback.

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2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Michigan State University head football coach Mel Tucker had the opportunity on Tuesday to address the media for the final time before the 2021 season opener against Northwestern. During the in-person press conference, Coach Tucker touched on the ongoing position battles, a preview of the Wildcats, and a little more about his personal coaching philosophy.

So... Who Will Start at Quarterback?

The biggest question on the minds of Spartans fans as well, as the media, is which of the two leading candidates at the quarterback position (Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo and redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne) will take the first snap on Friday evening in Evanston? But, Coach Tucker made it very clear that he simply is not going to tell us. Coach Tucker started by being evasive.

“We still have a few more days to prepare, so we’re still in discussion (about the starting quarterback) and we’ll make that determination,” Tucker said. “And then we’ll move forward.”

When pressed a bit further, Tucker said, “The competition has been good for our team. They have handled it very, very well. And so I commend them both on the way they’ve competed, and we’re going to have two really good players that we really feel good about.”

So, at least it seems clear that Noah Kim and Hamp Fay will not be a surprise starter. Eventually, though, when Tucker was asked directly if the quarterbacks themselves knew who the starter was going to be, Tucker gave another crumb of information.

“Yeah, they may know” Tucker said about the quarterbacks on the roster. After a chuckle from the media, he continued: “You know that I am not going to lie to you. That’s something that I won’t do.”

A bit later, Coach Tucker expanded on his policy of secrecy.

“You don’t want to do anything to give your opponent any type of advantage,” Tucker said. “And you don’t want to put your team at a disadvantage by the information that you communicate and that you put out there. You know everything that we do is about our team, what’s best for our players, our team and our organization.”

He added later, “I mean, it makes sense doesn’t it?”— referring to why he didn’t want to make that kind of information public — which drew a bit more laughter from the media members.

This level of secrecy about who Spartans fans are likely to see on Friday was not just confined to the quarterback group. When I asked him about the running back rotation, Coach Tucker simply said:

“We have like four or five backs that can play. So, the key for the backs is to hit the holes that are there and to break tackles and fall forward on contact.”

As for injuries, Tucker also kept his cards close to his vest. As for the status of defensive tackle Jacob Slade (who has been seen with a cast on his right hand), when asked specifically, Tucker said:

“We’ll have to see, we still have a few days left to go. So, we’ll see. We’ll see how that goes.”

Tucker did imply that no player who the staff expects to be a major contributor is expected to miss extended time or the entire season at this point.

Tucker was equally secretive when it came to any freshman that might be seeing the field on Friday. But, he did confirm that he has no issue playing the young guys.

“We’re not afraid to play (true freshman),” Tucker said. “You know, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. We’re practicing with them all the time. We see what they can do...if they can do it in practice, they should get to do it in a game.”

How about those Wildcats?

Naturally, there was at least some discussion about Michigan State’s first opponent, the Northwestern Wildcats. Tucker opened his press conference by talking about Northwestern and how excited the team is to begin the regular season.

“We’re obviously very excited to get to get the season started,” Tucker said. “We have a very tough opponent, Northwestern, on Friday night. They are always ready to play. They are the defending Big Ten West champs. It’s going to be a great environment. It’s prime time on Friday night, and we’ll have a lot of Spartans there as well. So really looking forward to that. We’ve prepared for the last eight months for these opportunities. We have a few more days to go and the hay is never in the barn, but I’m feeling good about our preparation to this point.”

When Coach Tucker was asked whether last year’s big win over the nationally-ranked Wildcats might be giving his team a boost of confidence, he down-played the impact.

“This is a new year and we have a new team and so do they, so the past is not necessarily predictive of the future,” Tucker said. “You always have to play games. I feel good about our preparation. It’s gonna be a 60-minute game and it’s going to be a physical game. We know that and we’re going to have to earn it.”

Coach Tucker, in general, also down-played the idea that MSU had the corner on the market when it came to the element of surprise. He pointed out that there is also a lot of uncertainty with the team in purple from Evanston as well.

“In the opening game, there’s gonna be so many unknowns with both teams, and so that’s to be expected,” Tucker said.

Tucker also added: “We’ll have some scouting alerts in pregame, and we’ll be scouting and scanning, looking for alignments and things like that and we’re seeing who’s out and then we’ll have to make adjustments during the game.”

The media was also curious if Tucker had any concern about facing a Big Ten team in Week One, as opposed to opening with (in theory) a weaker non-conference opponent. Tucker made it clear that this was not an issue.

“The preparation doesn’t change, regardless of who you open up with,” Tucker said. “Every game is truly special...I don’t care when we play or where we play. It doesn’t matter. We only have a few opportunities to get it done. We’ve worked really hard for these opportunities and we have to make the most out of them...It’s about execution and playing our hearts out for 60 minutes. That is what is going to be about.”

Tucker even mentioned that it would be OK with him to just “put the ball out in the parking lot.”

Identity and Tactics

While Coach Tucker appeared to side-step some of the media questions about the depth chart, he did expand a bit on some of his overall coaching philosophies as the Michigan State head man. When Tucker was asked what type of identity he was hoping to instill in his team, he gave the following response:

“We want to be best conditioned, and to be able to go harder for longer,” Tucker said. We want to be smart. We want to be ourselves. We want to play fast. Players play fastest when they know what to do. We want to be physical, and that’s going to be key because the name of the game is ‘hit.’ And we plan to play with great technique and fundamentals, and we do that with extreme effort. Then, you’ll see the type and the brand of football that our fans deserve to see out there. So, in a nut shell that is what we are looking for.”

Later in the press conference, Tucker even provided insight into how his staff provides the feedback to his players which allow them to continue to improve.

“We have situational football in practice,” Tucker said. “And we grade it, we evaluate and then we present it to the players. These are the areas. This is what you have to do. This is what’s required to have success in football games and to beat the good teams and so we’re going to see.”

Coach Tucker even gave a shout out to the use of analytics, specifically in the area of special team. On this topic he said:

“We’ve talked to our guys this week and we talked quite a bit about drive start analysis and score probabilities (based on) where the drive starts. A lot of it has to do with special teams.”

Other Odds and Ends

Throughout the press conference, Coach Tucker briefly touched on several other topics including:

  • Tucker mentioned that “96 to 97 percent” of the team is currently vaccinated against COVID-19
  • In the discussion of special teams, Tucker mentioned that a significant number of starters would be appearing on the special teams units.
  • Coach Tucker reiterated how much he has was looking forward to a full Spartan Stadium this fall “With the band, the fans, the cheer team, the dance team, and Sparty. All of those things that makes college football great.”
  • The final question of the afternoon centered on Michigan State’s inclusion in a list of 10 college football programs that will be featured in the “Campus Legends” limited-time event in Superstar KO mode of the “Madden NFL 22” video game from EA Sports. Coach Tucker mentioned that this was “great exposure for us,” and “good for recruiting.” When asked about his own video game playing habits, Tucker mentioned that he tried to play “Call of Duty” during COVID, but he kept getting shot in the back. He finished by saying that it was “not the best use of my time.”

Hopefully, Coach Tucker and the Spartans will make much better use of their time on the road trip to Northwestern this weekend. Go Green.