It is an interesting turn of a phrase at a pivotal moment in Michigan State football history.
The transition from Mark Dantonio to Mel Tucker began Friday with the Spartans’ first practice under their new coach, nearly six months after he was hired. Tucker has promised players “a clean slate” going into his debut, but the lack of hands-on experience with his new personnel is forcing him to approach preseason camp with a different, much simpler mantra than his predecessor.
“Obviously, when we start practicing, we have to have organization and guys are going to be in groups,” Tucker said Thursday on a video conference call. “But instead of a depth chart, I’m going to call it a ‘rep chart.’ And it’s going to be fluid, and it’s how we’re going to rep today, and it will change day-to-day, and it will also change within a practice.”
Tucker’s first practice, which is closed to the media due to COVID-19 restrictions, went for more than two hours. The Spartans will hold a second practice in helmets, jerseys and shorts Saturday, then break out shells Sunday and Monday. They will take off Tuesday before holding their first full-pad practice Wednesday.
“The first day went great. It felt good to be out here with the players and all the coaches,” Tucker said Friday, according to a MSU release. “Really good enthusiasm. Guys were really into it. I thought we got a lot of work done, we had really good tempo. I’m excited to see the film. …
“A couple of the periods, we’re going to need to slow down some of the periods, but the periods where we were going fast, our guys looked quick and they knew what to do, and they were running to the ball. So today was a solid day, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
MSU has several holes to fill, but the group with the biggest need for reps is at quarterback, where the Spartans must replace Brian Lewerke, the program’s all-time leader in total yards.
Rocky Lombardi returns with the most experience (16 appearances; three starts), but he has struggled since his debut against Purdue in 2018. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound junior went 26-for-46 for 318 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in beating the Boilermakers in place of an injured Lewerke. But in his other 15 appearances, Lombardi completed just 38% of his passes (49-for-129) for 494 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions.
The only other QB with experience is 6-5, 222-pound redshirt sophomore Theo Day, who took all of six snaps last year and whom Dantonio pulled mid-drive from his final appearance against Penn State. Day was 2 of 3 passing in that game for 12 yards.
The other two scholarship quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne and newcomer Noah Kim, have yet to see the field, though Thorne (6-2, 197) comes from a family of football coaches and impressed the previous staff last fall.
“At this point, what’s going to be important is what we do with the reps that we get moving forward,” Tucker said Thursday. “And I believe that we have enough time to get our players, our quarterbacks and everyone else, the reps that they need to put their best foot forward, to compete for jobs, and to be prepared for the season.”
MSU’s inefficiency on offense the past two seasons was a big reason the Spartans ended Dantonio’s 13-year tenure with consecutive 7-6 records. A large reason for that were injuries up front, and offensive line is another spot where juggling the reps will be critical.
The offensive line’s continuity took a hit Friday with senior right tackle Jordan Reid opting out this season — he’s the only player to start every game the past two seasons. However, Tucker inherits a group of nine other linemen with starting experience but also a history of injuries that cost the Spartans 43 games collectively a year ago. MSU used nine different combinations on the line in 2018 and seven groupings a year ago, which greatly contributed to the inconsistency around them.
The loss of Reid puts more pressure on new offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic to find the combination that meshes best with veterans Matt Allen, A.J. Arcuri, Luke Campbell and Kevin Jarvis (returning from a season-ending injury), along with youngsters J.D. Duplain, Devontae Dobbs, Nick Samac and Matt Carrick.
“Every drill that we do – whether it’s an individual drill or a group drill or a team drill, or a scrimmage – everything we do will be filmed and graded by the coaches, and every player will get a grade on every drill,” Tucker said. “And we’re going to work really hard to teach, motivate and develop our guys. As we see our guys perform more, and we’re able to evaluate them more, we’ll be able to create a depth chart going into the season.”
At wide receiver, first-time college assistant Courtney Hawkins will need to develop replacements for Darrell Stewart, Cody White and perhapssophomore Julian Barnett, who moved to the defensive side of the ball — unless he becomes a two-way player. The Spartans have a load of young talent at wideout, including returnees Jalen Nailor, C.J. Hayes and Tre Mosley as well as tantalizing transfer Jayden Reed, a freshman All-American at Western Michigan in 2018 before sitting out last year. At tight end, sophomore Trenton Gillison emerged late in the season after MSU lost Matt Dotson, who returns as a senior.
On defense, Jacub Panasiuk opting out and planning to redshirt like Reid means Tucker must replace the entire starting front four. The Spartans also lost two starters at linebacker (Joe Bachie and Tyriq Thompson) and three in the secondary (Josiah Scott, David Dowell and Josh Butler). While linebacker Antjuan Simmons and safety Xavier Henderson return as starters, there are only a handful of backups – defensive tackle Naquan Jones, cornerback Shakur Brown, linebacker Noah Harvey and defensive end Drew Beesley among them – who have significant in-game experience on defense.
On Friday, the reset button was hit and competition began anew. Now Tucker must begin shaping his vision for the Spartans into a reality. Should there be a season, it is less than a month away – with plenty of work to make up for in a short window for Tucker to begin shaping his offseason vision into a reality with the Spartans.
“We have a hungry football team, and our players know that they have to compete,” Tucker said. “They’re going to get what they deserve, what they earn. It’s a daily process. There’s no room for complacency. No one really cares what you did last week, no one really cares what you did yesterday – it’s about what have you done for me today? And that’s what you’re going to be evaluated on.”
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