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Mel Tucker continues to change the way Michigan State football operates.
The Spartans used Tuesday morning’s practice as their second spring scrimmage, which under Mark Dantonio generally would be held on a Friday or Saturday. Tucker instead used the weekend to bring back a number of football alumni to watch MSU practice at Spartan Stadium.
They returned to their empty stadium three days later, giving his current players another opportunity to work on the intricacies Tucker is prioritizing heading into his second season.
“We're still installing on both sides of the ball and special teams, so hopefully we'll be able to continue to do that,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “The spring is really a time of technique and fundamentals and doing simple, better. You can't get bored with the fundamentals. That's the foundation of everything that we do. That's how you build your team, that's how you are able to sustain.
"If you get off track, that's how you're able to self-correct and get back on track because you do have a basis of technique fundamentals. And so really, that is the focus.”
MSU’s spring game to conclude its 15 practices will kick off at 2 p.m. April 24 at Spartan Stadium. It will be broadcast on Big Ten Network, but university officials remain in discussion about/ whether or not fans will be permitted to attend as COVID-19 cases continue to spike around mid-Michigan.
“In preparation for the possibility of accommodating fans at the spring football game on April 24, MSU athletics is working on a plan that complies with the protocols established by the (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services),” the school said in a statement.
Tucker said: “I'm looking forward to the day that we can that we can have fans in our stadium and pack that thing out and be loud and see us play winning football. We're doing everything we can to engage our fans.”
When it came to discussing position battles or individual and position group improvements, Tucker remained short on specifics. How much so? He cited his equipment managers as showing the most development from the first scrimmage April 3.
He wasn’t kidding, citing new head equipment manager Andrew Kolpacki twice during his video news conference.
“I feel like our operation there is getting better,” Tucker said. “We need everybody on the same page, getting better. And quite frankly, they have done a much better job. We're breaking in some new guys.”
Elijah Collins improving
One player Tucker did glow about was running back Elijah Collins.
The junior running back went from rushing for 988 yards on 222 attempts with five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2019 to being limited to just 200 yards without a score on 65 carries last season. Backfield mate Connor Heyward and Tucker each said Collins lost weight going into his sophomore season, which affected his play.
Tucker said he and Collins had conversations about his diminished production during the winter and feels “he’s trending” upward with “his best football ahead of him.”
“I like what Elijah is doing,” Tucker said. “He's gaining weight, he's gotten stronger. He looks more explosive. He's hitting the hole with velocity, and he's keeping his feet moving on contact, and he's falling forward, too. He's running with authority.
“I thought that our backs ran hard today, ran through arm tackles, ran through contact and kind of really just exploded through some guys.”
Tucker said he does not feel MSU’s vacant quarterback situation will be solved before preseason camp in July and August, leading into the Spartans’ season opener Sept. 4 at Northwestern.
Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson divvies up the reps during practice and the scrimmage, with Tucker saying reps “usually turn out fairly evenly.” Tucker added that both sophomore Payton Thorne and grad transfer Anthony Russo have alternated with the first- and second-team offense, but he added that others also have gotten their turn for “a fair shake and a great evaluation.”
“It's really too early to tell. We have some indications of where it is, but we got a long way to go,” Tucker said. “We've got the rest of the spring, we have an entire summer program, and then we're going to have 25 practices in 29 days unless they change rules. And by the time that first scrimmage shakes out in fall camp, we'll pretty much have good idea of where we need to be at that position and the other positions.”
MSU’s coaches continued to shuffle offensive linemen during the scrimmage, Tucker said. All five starters are back from last season, which produced the Spartans’ worst scoring offense since 2000 and just two rushing TDs, none of them by a running back.
Tucker admitted there has been some improvement, though he only pointed to the visual aspect.
“I was looking at some before and after pictures from the weight room. We have guys that are gaining lean muscle mass, and they just look better,” he said. “We need to finish strong in the spring, and then this summer in the Spartan training program, we really gotta get after it.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football scrimmages again; will fans be at spring game?