East Lansing – Things felt normal around the Michigan State football building on Thursday, and that alone qualifies as news.
OK, maybe things weren’t exactly back to the way they’ve always been. After all, nearly everyone in and around the practice field and inside the Duffy Daugherty football building were wearing masks, and interviews were done from a safe distance as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers.
But football was being played with a definitive plan for when games will begin, a far cry from a year ago when the Spartans had only a handful of practices before the Big Ten made the early decision to cancel the season, one they backtracked on later in the fall.
“A year ago, we were separated,” senior running back Connor Heyward said, comparing what happened in 2020 in the midst of COVID-19 to Thursday’s first practice of 2021 preseason camp. “50 guys were out there (on the outdoor fields) and another 50 out here (on the indoor field), and that was pretty tough. … It was exhausting.
“So, just everybody being able to be out there and all that, it’s going to make a major impact. It lets everybody get to know each other and find out what Michigan State football is.”
That’s the goal every season, but it’s especially true this year for Michigan State as it looks to bounce back from a 2-5 mark in coach Mel Tucker’s first season. After all, Tucker made massive changes in the off-season, bringing in 40 new faces — 20 through the transfer portal, 20 through recruiting — to overhaul a roster that was short on talent.
All of that shuffling made carrying around a roster vital during Thursday’s workout as all of the new faces — many of whom just arrived on campus — started to get their feet wet. Of course, most of the incoming transfers and a chunk of the new recruits have already been in town, getting a feel for life in East Lansing.
At the top of that list is graduate transfer quarterback Anthony Russo. He was here in the spring but it didn’t take him long to feel like a Spartan.
“I’m fully comfortable at this point,” the former Temple quarterback said. “I’d say maybe two or three weeks, I felt like a transfer here. Then I started to learn everybody’s name, everybody started learning my name. They were very, very inviting here and kind of took me in with open arms, took all of us transfers in with open arms, and that was super important.”
Added running back Kenneth Walker III, who arrived in the spring from Wake Forest, “When I first got here it made it much easier being surrounded by so many good people. They made it feel like home, and they made me feel like family, from the staff and from the players.”
Getting that cohesion that clearly exists on day one to transfer onto the field and into the season that begins Sept. 3 at Northwestern is the next step for Tucker and his staff.
Sure, the talent has been upgraded, but learning a new system will be critical. That can be difficult early in camp for any program, but with so many roster changes, it might be even tougher for the Spartans.
However, Tucker said he didn’t see much of that on Thursday.
“I didn’t see a team full of transfers out there from an operation standpoint,” Tucker said. “I didn’t notice the difference in terms of these guys knowing what to do. I didn’t see that. I saw a football team with a lot of new faces, but guys knowing what is expected. They know what the expectations are, the standard, the culture.
“The operation was smooth today, it really was, and we just have to keep gaining ground every day.”
In other words, it seemed like a team that’s been around each other for far more than just a couple of days.
“I feel like this is the closest the team’s been since my freshman year when we went 10-3,” Heyward said. “The transfers, everybody kind of meshes together and everybody gets along and the team camaraderie is at an all-time high, and we’re all just excited to get to work every day.”
How much that turns into success on the field remains to be seen. The expectations for the Spartans aren’t high outside of East Lansing, but that’s not anywhere near the thoughts of Tucker and his team.
From the time everyone arrived on Wednesday night to hitting the field Thursday morning, Tucker said he could sense big things are coming.
“To be able to get out on the grass and actually get it done. … it’s a very exciting time,” Tucker said. “You can feel it from the players. I’ve felt it last night in the meetings. There was energy in the room and there was buzz. It was good.”