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Michigan State Spartans’ football program in a difficult transition during pandemic with new coach Mel Tucker

New Michigan State University football head coach Mel Tucker speaks during a news conference on Feb. 12 in East Lansing. (AP file photo)

By NOAH TRISTER

AP Sports Writer

Mel Tucker got a late start at Michigan State. Mark Dantonio’s retirement didn’t come until February, and Tucker was hired as the new coach shortly after that.

Then Tucker had about a month of normalcy before the coronavirus pandemic made his transition period even harder.

“I didn’t know what Zoom was before COVID, and I think we’ve become Zoom experts,” Tucker said earlier this offseason. “Initially, all of our contact was electronic. It was Zoom, FaceTime, text, phone calls, maybe hopping on a video game with a guy and talking with him through a headset, that was how we connected with our players. And that was quite a challenge, but it was a lot of fun.”

Now Tucker can work with his players in person, and although the circumstances in his first year as coach have been less than ideal, the program won’t be burdened by huge expectations. The last few seasons under Dantonio were difficult, and Michigan State appeared to be in a rebuilding mode well before the virus interfered with this past offseason.

Dantonio won three Big Ten titles at Michigan State and brought the Spartans to heights they hadn’t reached in decades, but in his final four seasons the team went just 17-19 in Big Ten play. Last year, Michigan State was 7-6 overall, but MSU was blown out by Ohio State (34-10), Wisconsin (38-0), Penn State (28-7) and Michigan (44-10).

Now Michigan State must replace NFL draft picks Kenny Willekes and Josiah Scott. It feels like the Spartans’ playoff appearance in 2015 was a long time ago.

That did not prevent Michigan State from landing a coach with Power Five experience, however. Tucker coached Colorado for one season before taking over the Spartans.

“We’re very process driven, and it’s unfolding right before our eyes, and we’re working hard at it every day to cement our culture, continue to drive home our process,” Tucker said recently.

Quarterback options

The Spartans have to replace Brian Lewerke at quarterback. Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day return at that position, but they combined for only 24 pass attempts last season.

Defensive outlook

Michigan State’s best stretch under Dantonio came on the strength of an aggressive defense that was tough to run on. Last year, the Spartans ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in total defense, and although defensive lineman Jacub Panasiuk’s return should help, the defensive group coming back is an inexperienced one.

Running game

Michigan State went through significant injury problems on the offensive line last season, but Elijah Collins still managed to rush for nearly 1,000 yards. He could take some of the pressure off whoever is at quarterback.