Now is when everything gets real.
Weightlifting and conditioning can only do so much. Same with walk-throughs and 7-on-7 drills.
Michigan State football will begin full-contact practice for the first time since December on Monday as it finally begins earnest preparation for the much-delayed debut of Mel Tucker’s regime.
The Spartans are scheduled open the season Oct. 24 against Rutgers.
“We've gotten a good, solid, probably five weeks of running and lifting, and we're actually in better condition now than we were when we started camp previously before postponements,” Tucker told reporters on a video call Sept. 17, a day after the Big Ten announced it will move forward with a season this fall. “So I'm just excited to get going, and I am just looking forward to getting back out on the grass with our guys.”
This is when the real assessment of the Spartans' roster begins. As defenders begin showing who can translate knowledge of the new scheme to making tackles. Quarterbacks begin throwing against defensive backs, with receivers making catches through physical contact. And offensive and defensive linemen putting that extra weight room work to practical use in the trenches.
Much of that developmental time was lost when spring practice was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic in March. The Spartans also missed part of their July workouts because of a team-wide 14-day quarantine due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program.
When the Spartans finally did get on the field in early August, albeit briefly, Tucker found “too many guys on the ground.” Which is translation for: the absence of normal offseason conditioning led to cramping and showed they were not yet physically ready to play.
That will be front-of-mind as contact practices begin.
“We believe in using all of the exercise science that we have. We have people in place that monitor our player loads and use our Catapult GPS units and things like that, so we have a plan for player loads for Week 1 starting next Monday,” Tucker said. “And then the following week, we'll increase the load. Then the next two weeks before game week, we will be at probably a full normal player load for practices, which will prepare us for a solid game week preparation and where our guys will be in shape and ready to go for game day.”
MSU stands to benefit from the limbo period between the Big Ten's postponement Aug. 11 and its reinstatement Sept. 16. The time off allowed the new strength and conditioning staff, headed by newcomer Jason Novak, to enact what normally would be an offseason program. The delay also gave players a chance to avoid the long practices in extreme late-summer heat. And it provided a group of offensive linemen who have been ravaged by injuries the past two years a little extra time to get fully healthy with an eight-games-in-eight-week season now in front of them.
“My attitude when the season got canceled was that we're gonna play eventually. So at one point or another, I gotta be ready to go – whether that's in November or whether that's in spring or whether that was even until next fall,” junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi said on a video call with reporters last week. “I just looked at it that I got a little more prep time than anybody else. I got that extra month.”
Which brings us to Monday, when business once again becomes football.
First order will be finding replacements at several key positions, particularly quarterback and middle linebacker. Lombardi appears the front-runner to replace three-year starter Brian Lewerke at QB, with sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne giving chase. Sophomore Chase Kline drew rave reviews from starting outside linebacker Antjuan Simmons recently, and new linebackers coach Ross Els will have to find the configuration that best fits MSU’s system under new coordinator Scottie Hazelton.
Those are the primary spots, but padded practices and contact will allow new offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic to figure out who among his returning group will mesh together to improve a languishing run game and protect whoever gets the ball at quarterback. It also will give receivers a chance to work on their timing with the QBs against live defenders and within the construct of Jay Johnson’s new offense.
“I think it’s the most talented offense we’ve had at least since I’ve been here,” Lombardi said. “Our O-line is coming together. You know, our O-line has been the same O-line for the last three years, and now we’re finally old and we got everybody going — we’re big, strong, we know what we’re doing. So I’m really excited to see what this offense can do."
“But at the end of the day, it’s just getting experience, getting reps, building that chemistry with your teammates. … It’s all just about how well can you work together and how well can you execute game plans. It just comes down to reps.”
It won’t be a traditional preseason camp, which typically happens before classes and can allow two-a-days and longer workouts that are less restrictive than during the school year and season.
But Lombardi said the extended time off and long wait has the Spartans “ready to get out there.”
“Coach Tuck’s not messing around now, man,” Lombardi said. “He’s getting us ready to go. He’s motivated, we’re motivated.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Here's what Michigan State football must accomplish before Rutgers game