Here's Michigan State football's plan for possible COVID disruptions

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

Mel Tucker will need to replace Michigan State football’s only offensive lineman to play every game over the past three seasons.

It was something the Spartans’ new coach has been preparing for since August, but Tucker confirmed Wednesday that senior right tackle Jordan Reid “as of right now” still plans to opt out of playing this season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Like we've said before, like I've said before, we're supporting our players and their decisions to be in or to opt out,” Tucker said on a video call Wednesday. “And then we'll we'll just we'll just see how it continues to play out.”

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MSU OT Jordan Reid (55) proclaims a Spartan touchdown against WMU Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Spartan Stadium.

Reid, a fourth-year senior from Detroit, started the past 26 games at right tackle and has played in 39 consecutive games for a beat-up offensive line that lost 61 man-games to injuries and used 16 different starting groups in 26 games in 2018 and 2019. Reid's Aug. 7 tweet announcing his decision to opt out included his intention to return to the Spartans for his fifth season in 2021.

Players deciding to sit out over concerns about COVID-19 is a reality of this season across the country. Tucker also said redshirt freshman offensive lineman Justin Stevens — who, like Reid, opted out in August — will not play this fall. Stevens said he has a respiratory condition and plans to redshirt.

But the Big Ten's move to daily testing ahead of its planned season beginning Oct. 24 has caused other players to reconsider.

MSU had two players who had previously opted out, returning starting defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and linebacker Marcel Lewis, announce they changed their minds and will play. Likewise in the Big Ten, stars such as Ohio State’s Shaun Wade and Purdue’s Rondale Moore have opted back in.

New coach Mel Tucker hopes to make his debut with Michigan State on Oct. 24 against Rutgers, but he and his staff are preparing for potential COVID-19 disruptions on top of the upcoming season.

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Tucker did not say if any other players planned to opt out of this season.

“I think COVID has added, in all of our lives in every way, different levels of complexity, so to speak,” he said. “And so we're handling it, staying neutral. What are the facts, what do we know, and then what do we need to do with the information that we have? Not get too high, not get too low and take it one day at a time. And so where we need to adapt to make adjustments as a staff, we do that.

“And the same thing with the players. And we also continue to, to hammer our protocols and our behavior modification and all those things that will allow us to continue to practice and eventually compete in games.”

Tucker and new coordinators Jay Johnson (on offense) and Scottie Hazelton (on defense) have talked about planning for personnel losses if a COVID-19 outbreak hits this fall. Most importantly, any player who tests positive for the coronavirus will not be allowed to play for 21 days following a positive diagnosis, which could cripple a team if multiple cases are found within a position group.

The Spartans are working to “cross-train” at multiple roles as a precaution; at its extreme, that could mean offensive and defensive linemen learning each others' roles, as well as wide receivers and defensive backs swapping places.

“At some point, we're going to be doing some level of cross-training, even across (both) sides of the ball,” Tucker said. “But certainly, the cross-training within the position group is happening now, making sure guys can play multiple positions within their segment, whether it's the secondary or the offensive line or the receiver position. If guys know multiple positions, then you have more flexibility and you are better able handle injuries or anything that might be COVID-related.”

MSU is scheduled to face Rutgers on Oct. 24 at Spartan Stadium to kick off the season.

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No QB update

Michigan State quarterback Theo Day, center, throws a pass as Brian Lewerke, right, and Payton Thorne, left, watch during practice Aug. 12, 2019, in East Lansing.

Tucker said all three quarterbacks competing for the vacant starting job — Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day and Payton Thorne — continue to split reps “and the competition is good.”

However ... 

“We're still in competition mode,” he added, “and things have not completely shaken out yet.”

Lombardi, a redshirt junior, is the only QB with significant game experience — including three starts in 2018 — vying to replace Brian Lewerke. Day, a redshirt sophomore, got just six snaps last season, and Thorne took a redshirt in his first year on campus.

Daily testing

New Michigan State football defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, middle, prepares to cover his face with a bandana as he arrives with a group to go through COVID-19 testing Monday in East Lansing.

MSU and the rest of the Big Ten football programs moved to daily testing for COVID-19 on Sept. 30. So far, Tucker said, “it’s gone relatively smoothly.”

The Big Ten struck deals with Quidel, to use its daily rapid antigen testing, and Biodesix, a diagnostic company that will manage the onsite handling of those tests, in the biggest chance between the conference's Aug. 11 postponement and its return-to-play plan announced on Sept. 16.

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“We're very fortunate here in the Big Ten and the way the testing has been set up,” Tucker said. “We have very good rapport with the companies that are involved here on campus daily. They're here every day, they see us every morning, and we're getting a chance to know them and they're getting a chance to know us. It's almost like they become part of our support staff, and it's going to be like that for quite some time.”

The conference plans to administer daily testing to “all student-athletes and staff personnel involved in close contact sports competition.” The Big Ten announced Tuesday that hockey will return Nov. 13 under the same testing protocols, and basketball is expected to follow suit.  

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

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