MSU football story lines: Mel Tucker seeking progress in season two
Mel Tucker isn’t a first-year coach in the Big Ten anymore, but he’s about to jump into his first experience at Big Ten Media Days.
Tucker’s first season at Michigan State was an adventure, to say the least. From being hired as Mark Dantonio’s replacement in mid-February to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic without truly knowing many of the players on his roster, many parts of the next few weeks will feel like a first for Tucker.
It starts with the Big Ten’s annual get-together of coaches and players from around the conference. Typically held in Chicago, this year’s event will run Thursday and Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
While commissioner Kevin Warren and half of the Big Ten’s coaches and players will kick things off on Thursday, Tucker and three Spartan players — safety Xavier Henderson, defensive end Drew Beesley and wide receiver Jalen Nailor — will be at the lectern on Friday.
Coming off a 2-5 season in 2020 that included big wins over Michigan and Northwestern, there are plenty of questions facing Tucker and his staff as they prepare to open preseason camp on Aug. 5. There’s been one change to the coaching staff and the roster has been overhauled. And while Tucker gets a pass for season No. 1, no such attitude will exist this fall. While a championship is likely out of reach, Michigan State fans will expect to see some progress.
As Tucker faces the media for the first time in months on Friday, here are a few of the story lines that will likely be up for discussion:
What will be impact of coaching shuffle?
It doesn’t equate to a major move, but longtime assistant Mike Tressel left his job as safeties coach to become the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. It’s a job he’s certainly suited for after having great success under Dantonio, but it left an open spot. As it turns out, the secondary was one spot the Spartans could afford to absorb a departure on the staff. Harlon Barnett is among the best in the nation and he goes from focusing on cornerbacks to taking over the entire secondary while Travares Tillman moves from an assistant role to cornerbacks coach.
Who are the new faces?
As minor as the coaching moves were, the changes to the roster have been significant. Twenty-seven players left the program through the transfer portal while 19 players have joined the squad, three of those as preferred walk-ons. Add 18 freshmen as part of the 2021 recruiting class and there are plenty of fresh faces in the locker room heading into the season. What’s more, many of them will be counted on to play significant roles for the Spartans. Tucker has embraced the transfer portal and it could be providing the quickest way for the Spartans to turn things around.
How will QB competition play out?
One of those incoming transfers is quarterback Anthony Russo from Temple. His arrival, along with the late-season emergence of sophomore Payton Thorne, has helped create the classic quarterback battle that is likely to continue right up until the season opener Sept. 4 at Northwestern. As a graduate transfer, it’s hard to imagine Russo not getting a legitimate shot at becoming the starter. He threw for more than 6,200 yards and 44 touchdowns in 26 starts at Temple. But Thorne was effective late in 2020, including his only start at Penn State. Add in an impressive spring game and Thorne might just end up the guy under center.
Who are the weapons?
Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have the luxury of playmakers on the offense. Wide receivers Nailor and Jayden Reed have already flashed their ability, along with Ricky White and Tre Mosley. But the transfer portal has helped add more pop to the offense. First in that group is running back Kenneth Walker III, a transfer from Wake Forest. A tough runner who scored 13 touchdowns last season, Walker will get heavy work in what has become a deep and talented position group as sophomore Jordon Simmons should take a jump and junior Elijah Collins expects to bounce back. Add the arrival of former Auburn running back Harold Joiner and there are tons of options. Outside, Louisville transfer WR Christian Fitzpatrick should play a role and Purdue transfer Maliq Carr, who will also play basketball, is an intriguing weapon who can play wide receiver and tight end.
How will things look in the trenches?
Having plenty of playmakers is great, but the real test for Michigan State will be up front. The offensive line has struggled the past few seasons, but the unit hopes to be healthy this season and the depth is improving. Transfer Jarrett Horst will likely start at one tackle, a move that could allow Kevin Jarvis to move inside to guard. Juniors Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain continue to improve while veterans like Matt Allen, A.J. Arcuri, Matt Carrick and Blake Bueter are back. Also, it’s worth keeping an eye on younger players like tackle Spencer Brown and guard James Ohonba. Again, health is key, but this group could see a significant jump.
Will there be linebacker help?
There are plenty of holes to fill defensively, none bigger than at linebacker. Noah Harvey and Chase Kline are back, but the Spartans’ top recruit — Ma’a Gaoteote — could make an immediate impact while the transfer portal will likely offer more instant aid. Tennessee’s Quavaris Crouch is at the top of that list while Minnesota’s Itayvion Brown and Michigan’s Ben VanSumeren will be in the mix, as well. Not only will they help lessen the blow of Antjuan Simmons’ graduation, they could offer a quick upgrade to a position that has typically been a strength.
Who will shore up the back end?
No position was hit as hard by players exiting through the portal quite like cornerback. Four players with experience departed, leaving just junior Kalon Gervin and sophomore Angelo Grose with any real experience at a key position. The Spartans added five corners through the portal, led by Florida’s Chester Kimbrough and Alabama’s Ronald Williams. Also joining the roster were Arizona’s Khari Crump, Louisville’s Marqui Lowery and walk on Spencer Rowland from Division III Wheaton. With the Spartans often playing five defensive backs, there will be plenty of opportunity, not just for the corners, but a full stable of safeties, as well.
How will they handle new world?
As much as things are changing for Michigan State on the field, the Spartans, along with all college athletes, are entering a new world relative to name, image and likeness. Several Spartans have already landed endorsement deals, from Reed’s partnership with a Detroit clothing line to simple social media shout-outs from many others. It’s a brand new aspect to life for college athletes, and it will be interesting to see how the Spartans process it all.