EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Mel Tucker is entering his second season at Michigan State. Even though Tucker is not a rookie with the Spartans, it seems as if he's starting over.
Tucker was hired away from Colorado 18 months ago and endured a pandemic-shortened season with a 2-5 record.
The Spartans added a slew of transfers, including five from SEC programs, aiming for a quick turnaround.
“It’s like a new team,” running back Connor Heyward acknowledged.
Tucker has told the players — returning and newcomers — that jobs are open and playing time will be determined by highly competitive practices.
“We’re finding out who can help us,” Tucker said. “If it’s not on the tape, it doesn’t exist."
Every college football team had challenges competing during the pandemic last season, but it was particularly difficult for the Spartans because their new coach was hired just before the program was shuttered for months.
When Michigan State began to practice for the 2020 season only to stop and resume preparations, it just added to the obstacles.
“It felt very rushed last season," offensive tackle offensive tackle AJ Arcuri said.
With a chance to do face-to-face recruiting this year, Tucker has been able to attract talented prospects with a sales pitch that draws on the success the program had under coach Mark Dantonio.
“Two teams in the Big Ten have been to the college football playoff, and we’re one of those two,” Tucker said he tells recruits. “Only 11 teams in the country have been to the college football playoff and we’re one of them.
“You ask, `Why Michigan State?' I always pose the question, `Why not Michigan State?'"
Tucker has two options for a starting quarterback, Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo and redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Russo is a pocket passer, who started 26 times and played in 31 games for the Owls over the previous three years. He a risk-reward player with 44 passing touchdowns and 32 interceptions.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Thorne gives Tucker an option with more mobility. He played in four games last season, starting one, and threw three touchdowns as three interceptions for the Spartans.
Tucker said he does not plan to rotate both quarterbacks when the games begin, but that doesn't mean the rest of the team knows who will be the starter.
“I know just as much as you do with that whole situation," Arcuri told reporters. “I’m excited to see what happens.”
TON OF TRANSFERS
Russo is one of 20 transfers on the team, and one of many projected to make an instant impact.
“It’s healthy for our team,” returning cornerback Kalon Gervin said. “We definitely changed the team around.”
Former Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker and ex-Tennessee linebacker Quavaris Crouch are among the newcomers expected to play key roles.
“When I first got here, it was like everybody already had open arms," Walker said. “They didn’t treat me like competition."
ON THE MOVE
Heyward is part of a talented group of running backs and might create some playing time for himself, and others, by lining up as a tight end at times.
“He's a versatile player,” Tucker said. “He can do many things."
HE SAID IT
The Spartans are not expected to by those outside of the program to have a winning record this season, but that has not done anything to diminish their confidence.
“We want to win it all,” safety Angelo Grose said. “No time to wait.”
Michigan State opens the season Sept. 3 at Northwestern in a prime-time game.
The Spartans will be tested two weeks later on the road against No. 14 Miami and again a month later at No. 17 Indiana.
They host Michigan on Oct. 30, shooting to beat their rival for the 10th time in 15 years.
Michigan State ends the regular season at No. 4 Ohio State and at home against No. 19 Penn State.
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