Rainer Sabin, Detroit Free Press
Published 6:02 a.m. ET Sept. 22, 2020
Michigan State’s Mel Tucker talks about how his team dealt with Big Ten football’s postponement, civil unrest and social issues and returning to play, Sept. 17, 2020.
Detroit Free Press
For a brief moment Monday evening, Antjuan Simmons lost his concentration.
His train of thought fizzled, causing him to pause before asking a reporter to repeat his question.
“It’s been a long day,” Simmons said with a smile.
The senior linebacker from Ann Arbor had just finished a practice that was so charged it blindsided him like a blitzing defender he strives to emulate.
Exactly 222 days into the Mel Tucker era of Michigan State football, Simmons’ first true introduction to the new coaching regime resembled a baptism by fire.
There was non-stop running, an accelerated tempo in every drill and no rest for the weary.
“It’s insane,” he said.
But it was welcomed, too.
There’s finally a season to play in East Lansing after the Spartans remained in a state of paralysis for half the year. The residual impact of the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring practice, sent the team into quarantine for two weeks during the summer and then pushed it to the sideline for an indefinite period when the Big Ten postponed fall sports in August. The reversal of that decision came Wednesday, signaling another new beginning for a program that has been waiting to launch ever since Tucker signed on as Mark Dantonio’s replacement in February.
“It still didn’t even feel real,” quarterback Rocky Lombardi said.
But then came Monday.
The team was experiencing football in a way it hasn’t before, revved up from the handful of practices held in August before the Big Ten’s shutdown. The inertia of the past six months suddenly gave way to extreme activity. It was zero to 60 in one afternoon.
Lombardi sensed there was a different energy among the players and coaches as they pushed through Monday’s regimen at a lightning-quick pace.
Simmons described the intensity as off the charts, with whistles blowing and instructions being delivered with loud barking through facemasks.
“Coach Tuck is not messing around now, man,” Lombardi, a redshirt junior, said. “He’s getting us ready to go. He’s motivated. We’re motivated … Everybody is flying around.”
Tucker knows there is not a moment to waste.
The Oct. 24 season opener against Rutgers is 33 days away and it’s a game the Spartans must win if they have hopes of salvaging a decent season. With matchups against Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa as well as a Week 2 showdown against Michigan, Tucker’s bunch will have to navigate a challenging schedule.
But before they can start, a new offense and defense must be installed, position battles need to be won and fundamentals established and reinforced.
“We still have a long ways to go,” Tucker said.
In the coming weeks, Tucker promised to evaluate every player, and in his words, “observe everything they do.”
The work will be done in a condensed timetable and with a heightened sense of urgency. This is one of the ways Tucker is making up for lost time.
Another could be found on the practice field, where Tucker tried to maximize every second.
“I feel like we made a good step today,” he said. “The guys were into it.”
So too was Tucker, who sounded as if he was yelling into a huddle as he delivered those comments.
Of course, Tucker wouldn’t have it any other way. At the dawn of his tenure, he vowed he would sleep fast and get after it.
If the first true practice under Michigan State’s new coach was any indication, that promise will be fulfilled.
“He was ready,” Simmons said. “There wasn’t no ifs, ands or buts about it.”