A year ago, Connor Heyward and Drew Beesley went home to wait and ponder what might come next.
Weeks became months, and spring turned to summer. Mel Tucker and his staff had to learn about and teach their new Michigan State football players from afar.
“Yeah, we were working out, but we weren’t here with our brothers or anybody just being able to do what we love and what we’re just so comfortable doing,” Heyward said Tuesday. “And sometimes when you have that taken away from you, you just sit back and really miss it.
“It makes us makes moments like these more exciting and appreciative.”
The long-awaited moment came at 9 a.m. Tuesday — 371 days late, and seven games into his tenure, Tucker finally opened spring practice with the Spartans.
It is finally some semblance of normality after a 2020 filled with chaos.
A late coaching change. A quickly assembled staff. A shutdown due to a pandemic four days before spring practice was to open.
Getting to know players and building a blueprint over video conference calls. Recruiting from afar. A COVID-19 stoppage. A Big Ten postponement and restart. And finally, a truncated season with a historic rivalry win, two cancellations and plenty of lessons while going 2-5 in Tucker’s first season.
And Year 2 began with a spirited practice and even stronger sense of purpose for the Spartans.
“There’s a different vibe in the building,” Tucker said following the opening of practice Tuesday. “In the locker room, in the weight room, there’s a different type of energy. We’re moving forward, we’re gaining ground.”
That has been Tucker’s out-of-season mantra — he won’t call it “offseason,” because he sees football “like perpetual motion.” That’s because of his obsession with improvement.
Tucker promised in December the Spartans would look much different in 2021, and he and his staff dramatically overhauled MSU’s roster. They mined social media and analyzing tape to bring in 10 transfers so far along with a 19-player incoming class, most of which was assembled without meeting players in person.
OUR PREDICTIONS: MSU’s depth chart before spring practice
And what they managed to do in getting through a partial season, which included top-15 upsets of Michigan and Northwestern, allowed Tucker to treat the fall as an audition for this season — which he hopes will be a full spring of installation, a full summer of workouts and a full fall of games after all of the stops and starts a year ago.
“There’s better understanding, there’s more buy in, there’s more trust. And the guys that are returning, we’ve been through some things together,” said Tucker, who went 5-7 in one year at Colorado before replacing Mark Dantonio at MSU on Feb. 12, 2020. “And that’s important, too. You really don’t know what you have until it starts hitting the fan. And we’ve been through it, so we know what to expect out of each other.”
There will be plenty to iron out — finding a new quarterback first and foremost. Tucker said it is an open competition this spring between sophomore Payton Thorne, who started the Spartans’ finale at Penn State, along with Temple grad transfer Anthony Russo, junior Theo Day and redshirt freshman Noah Kim.
“I believe your quarterback has to be the No. 1 competitor on your team. So first and foremost, that’s what we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We’re looking for leadership, and we’re looking for someone who can execute and run our offense efficiently and effectively.”
Tuesday was the first of the Spartans’ 15 allowable spring practices. Tucker plans to work them out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for the next five weeks, culminating with a spring game April 24. Whether that will be open to fans remains to be seen, he said.
But it was a welcome return to the field for players who got through grueling winter workouts that weren’t interrupted wondering who would be in charge when they practiced again.
“Practice 1 last fall and Practice 1 (Tuesday) in spring ball were completely different,” Heyward said. “Last fall, I felt like we were learning on the fly, everything was rushed. Mentally, it takes a toll on you, because you’re just constantly thinking, and you can’t just go out there and play.
“Today, Install 1, there’s bits and pieces from last year, but we also have our wrinkles and different things like that. … I feel like we’ve really been able to sit down and go up to coaches and ask questions and stuff like that and just reevaluate different things that we might have had problems with throughout the year.”
Part of the reconfigured process Tucker always talks about includes continuing to test six times a week. The Spartans had their own stoppage due to COVID-19 issues late last summer just before camp opened in August, only to be shut down along with the rest of the Big Ten. A month later, everything started again – and MSU was among the most affected teams with a new coach who started two months later than most and trying to analyze what each player might bring while not getting hands-on work until basically a few weeks before kickoff.
“We just got to put all the pieces of the puzzle together,” said Beesley, a defensive end returning for a sixth season thanks to the NCAA exemption. “And that’s what this spring ball is gonna do for us, because I feel like we definitely missed out with spring ball not happening last season.”
For Tucker, the first practice felt like the Spartans “put some money in the bank.” They showed off peak conditioning and retention of concepts. And more importantly, he understands who they are, and they know what he is demanding to try and bring MSU back among the contenders for a Big Ten title as soon as possible.
“They’re hungry and have a chip on their shoulder, just like our coaching staff. That excites me,” he said. “They love football, they live football. And like I said, from Day 1, if you like football, then you probably got a shot with me. And that’s what I feel from this group.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State’s Mel Tucker first spring practice; ‘a different vibe’