Why Mel Tucker is hiding his Michigan State football team

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

Mel Tucker thought about what it is going to feel like to run through the Spartan Stadium tunnel for his Michigan State football coaching debut.

The stands might be empty, but the new head coach knows the field will be filled with energy.

“I can’t help but smile,” Tucker said during a Tuesday video call. “This is a dream come true for me.”

So, too, is the ability to conceal just what his team will look like in Saturday’s delayed season opener against Rutgers (noon on Big Ten Network).

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker watches practice Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker watches practice Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.

Tucker said he would not release a depth chart at least early in the week, potentially longer. That is every coach's dream — to have an opponent with no film to study. There isn’t even a spring-game tape to look at or TV footage of practices.

Everything that has been disseminated by the program has carefully chosen and edited to hide much of what is actually happening on the field.

Credit Tucker for continuing his tight-lipped secrecy and masking any potential excitement or concern for his new squad. It was a trait plucked straight off the Nick Saban tree from which his coaching career grew. He was Belichickian in avoidance and Tuckerian in maintaining a neutral tone that neither elevated or denigrated his squad.

Tucker spent almost the entire 32 minutes of his preview of the Scarlet Knights dancing around who might be his starting quarterback and other position-specific questions. He stuck mainly to the generalized talking points he has hit on since being hired Feb. 12 — demanding a physical, detail-oriented and mentally tough brand of football coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons.

“At this point, I don't anticipate releasing a depth chart any time in early in this week,” Tucker said. “This is a unique year. As you know, things change daily.”

That does not mean decisions about playing time for Saturday have not been made internally or expressed to players, however. The Spartans began their prep work late last week for Rutgers. Coaches went from giving players equal snaps during practice to preparing them for their roles vs. the Scarlet Knights, who went 2-10 a year ago but have a new head coach in Greg Schiano.

“The emphasis has been with our coaching staff to develop every player on our roster in anticipation of needing everyone at some point in time to be ready to play,” Tucker said. “Our depth chart is more of a rep chart — this is who is going to take the reps first or second, and then not so much. A depth chart is set in stone. We're trying to develop as many players as we can.

“A coach's job as a teach, motivate and develop. And every player on our roster is getting coached hard, with attention to detail and a sense of urgency and anticipation of that player ultimately being on the field and playing winning football for us.”

Michigan State's new head football coach Mel Tucker is greeted by the Sparty mascot on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, at the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing.
Michigan State's new head football coach Mel Tucker is greeted by the Sparty mascot on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, at the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing.

A whole lot of coach-speak. Good for motivation, bad for opponents’ preparation.

Tucker called the competition “fierce” at a number of positions, specifically at quarterback, and was careful to bring up all four: true freshman Noah Kim junior Rocky Lombardi, sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.

But he would not announce who will start Saturday, and he may not say at all before kickoff.

“As this week unfolds and the game plan is installed, we’ll make a decision,” Tucker said, “and then we’ll go play. … We’re gonna play who gives us the best chance to win. And so we’ll just have to see how this week unfolds. The guys that we have are very capable, so we’re very fortunate to have multiple quarterbacks that we feel like can get the job done.”

Very little is clear about how MSU will look schematically on offense and defense. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton hinted at keeping more of the 4-3 system Mark Dantonio’s staff taught and used for 13 years, but that is not definitive. Some looks could add a linebacker, some an extra defensive back; some fronts could be altered by shifting alignment one way or another.

Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has talked about using multiple sets and being creative with how he uses his players, not wanting formations or certain personnel groupings to tip off what plays might be coming. Johnson, like the rest of the staff, hasavoided singling out one player or another.

“I mean, football fundamentally is a simple game," Tucker said. "We have to be the best-conditioned, we have to put a premium on technique and fundamentals, we have to play smart, we don't beat ourselves and we have to play fast. Players play fastest when they know what to do and how to do it and know why it's important to do it that way. And then football is a collision sport — we have to be physical. …

“The name of the game is hit. And that's never gonna change. So being physical and playing tough, hard-nosed football, that's not a new concept for me. And it's not a new concept for Michigan State.”

Come Saturday, the intricacies beyond the brawn will finally be on display, more than eight months after Tucker took over.

But for now, the Spartans remain an enigma. Just how they want it.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Mel Tucker won't preview his version of Michigan State football