EAST LANSING – Mel Tucker wasted no time making his presence felt.
Working with Michigan State football’s cornerbacks, the third-year head coach didn’t wear the straw hat he sported a year ago when camp opened. Instead, he backpedaled with his players as they went through their drill work Thursday morning.
“Get your head out of your…” he barked at one point.
The Spartans took the field as a full unit for the first time since the spring, on the heels of an 11-2 season in which they finished No. 8 in the country, a stunning nine-win turnaround in Tucker’s first full year after a pandemic-shortened debut.
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Tucker, however, quickly put that in the past. And his serious-sounding opening salvo to his team, posted as a video on Twitter, said as much: “The decision has been made.”
Yet there remains plenty of decisions ahead in the coming weeks leading up to the Sept. 2 opener against Western Michigan (7 p.m., ESPN). Here is a look at five things Tucker and his staff must figure out before then.
Quarterback Payton Thorne knows the five guys in front of him are ultimately responsible for his success and that of the offense.
“I think those guys understand that as an offense, if they play well, we’re gonna play well,” Thorne said after the first practice Thursday.
Losing three starters and five players with extensive experience (Kevin Jarvis, AJ Arcuri, Matt Allen, Luke Campbell, Blake Bueter) brings about the most change up front. Yet there will be continuity, with the return of left guard JD Duplain and left tackle Jarrett Horst, who was solid to open last season before missing the final five games.
Senior Nick Samac appears ticketed to reclaim the center job he held in 2020 and part of 2019, but Washington State transfer Brian Greene also has experience there and at guard. Greene also could start at right guard, with veteran Matt Carrick returning from leg surgery last season. And Spencer Brown, who looked strong at right tackle in the Peach Bowl against Pitt, is the front-runner to stick in the starting group.
This camp will be extremely important for the younger linemen Brandon Baldwin, Dallas Fincher, Ethan Boyd, Geno VanDeMark, and Kevin Wigenton, as well as incoming freshmen Gavin Broscious, Ashton Lepo, Braden Miller and Kristian Phillips to show they are ready to add depth and push for playing time.
“I think those guys do understand how important they are and how vital they are to not only our offensive success but our whole team’s success,” Thorne said. “And so they’ve taken that upon themselves, and I think they’ve really worked hard this offseason, both physically and mentally, at understanding what works, what doesn’t and the different looks that we saw last year.”
Tucker’s continued presence with the cornerbacks, a role which he took on during the spring, shows just how much last season’s problems — MSU finished last in the nation in passing yards allowed per game — bothered the defensive-minded coach.
“In order to get to where we need to go, everyone has played really well — the corners and safeties. But in order to have a really good defense, you have to have really good corner play, and so there’s a lot of pressure on those guys,” Tucker said. “And they know that. That’s a good thing.”
Ronald Williams returns at one corner, although he sported a red jersey during the 15-minute open portion of drill work during the opening practice. Chester Kimbrough also started last season, but he sat out that part of Thursday’s work. Georgia transfer Ameer Speed is also expected to contend for playing time, along with sophomores Charles Brantley and Marqui Lowery. Captain Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose return at safety, and the Spartans could go a number of different directions at nickelback in the 4-2-5 defense.
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But the cornerbacks and safeties were not solely at fault for MSU’s problems in pass coverage last season.
To help counter some of the issues with coverage in short and intermediate routes, MSU moved Darius Snow from safety and nickel to linebacker. He did drills with one group of linebackers while transfers Aaron Brule and Jacoby Windmon worked with Cal Haladay and Ben VanSumeren in the other.
“At the end of the day, a football player makes plays, I go out there and make plays. It doesn’t really matter, in my opinion, where I’m at on the field,” Snow said. “I’m gonna make plays. As long as you make it plays really, it doesn’t matter what position you play. …
“We have some versatile depth in the room. So we got guys who can play D-end, we got guys who can play nickel, we got guys who play in the back, we got guys who play safety if needed.”
Tucker also believes MSU needs to increase its pass rush production, so much so that he brought in Marco Coleman and Brandon Jordan to work with the defensive line to improve the pressure off the edge.
Which may sound strange, since the Spartans finished tied for seventh in the country with 43 sacks a year ago. But junior Jeff Pietrowski said there is more to it than just the numbers.
“Everyone looks at sacks, but also it’s your total pressures,” said Pietrowski, who had three of MSU’s other 32 QB hurries last season. “There’s a whole bunch of different advanced stats that you could look at. But that’s something that, personally I want to get better at — getting more pressure, getting your win rate higher, so that way you’re affecting the quarterback on more throws, not just the ones where you’re getting home.
“That’s just winning of your one-on-ones. So everything we’ve done from starting in the winter with the offseason program and in spring ball, everything is going into winning those one-on-one matchups, winning your pass rush.”
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With the graduation losses of Jacub Panasiuk, Drew Beesley and Drew Jordan, MSU needs to find a new top three and beyond. Pietrowski and one-time running back Brandon Wright appear to be in the running with Florida transfer Khris Bogle to land starting roles at defensive end. Michael Fletcher, Itayvion Brown and Avery Dunn also could work into snaps, while freshmen Chase Carter and James Schott have a chance to make an immediate impact.
Most years, replacing a first-team All-American, Walter Camp national player of the year, Doak Walker Award winner and the Big Ten’s top running back would be the top priority.
Yet despite the NFL departure of Kenneth Walker III, MSU has plenty of options and a pair of incoming transfers in Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) who hope to duplicate what Walker did in his one-and-done banner season after arriving from Wake Forest.
Broussard — whom Tucker coached in 2019 with the Buffaloes — arrived in the summer, while Berger enrolled in January and went through spring practice.
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“He’s got to prove it, just like everyone else — myself included — every single day and earn the right to get out there and get some touches and get some targets,” Tucker said of Broussard.
Berger and Broussard have plenty of competition. Elijah Collins and Jordon Simmons return with starting experience, Harold Joiner III is back as a big-bodied back, and Davion Primm had a strong spring that impressed his coaches. One of them could emerge like Walker as the bell cow, or coaches could deploy a by-committee situational approach.
That likely won’t be determined until the pads go on next week and scrimmages begin. But watching the running backs’ film after Thursday’s practice was a high priority for Tucker to get a gauge for where the position is after Day 1.
“We have competition at that position,” Tucker said. “So those guys are gonna have to push, they’re gonna have to strain, they’re gonna have to take care of football. And we’re gonna have to have a really good camp with that group.”
Thorne is the only quarterback on the roster with college game experience. He stayed healthy last season, with departed grad transfer Anthony Russo getting a few cameo appearances.
Should something happen to Thorne, Tucker will have to turn to sophomore Noah Kim, redshirt freshman Hamp Fay and newcomer Katin Houser.
Although he deferred to offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, who has the ultimate decision, Thorne said he believes Kim has the edge at the outset of camp.
“I think we got some good quarterbacks,” Thorne said. “I think Noah Kim has really played well in the spring, and it was really fun playing with him in the summer and getting workouts in and everything. And then after that, we’ll see who falls after that.”
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