Shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 12, 2020, a deal was reached.
Mel Tucker agreed to become Michigan State football’s 25th coach and was formally introduced at the Breslin Center that evening.
Tucker, coming off his debut season as a head coach at Colorado, replaced Mark Dantonio, who abruptly retired eight days earlier after 13 seasons leading the program.
By taking over the Spartans, Tucker returned to his coaching roots after beginning his career as a graduate assistant at Michigan State from 1997-98 under Nick Saban. Plenty changed in the more than two decades since Tucker was gone and, as expected, there have been more changes in the now one year that has passed after he returned to East Lansing.
Tucker’s first 12 months on the job didn’t go as planned because of COVID-19, which wiped out spring practice and resulted in numerous stops and starts before a postponed and shortened season that ended with a 2-5 record. But with a vaccine being administered and a revised 2021 schedule now set, there’s hope for a return to normal this year.
Michigan State started an eight-week strength and conditioning program on Jan. 25 and is scheduled to begin spring practice on March 23. The Spartans are moving forward in Year 2 under Tucker and here are five notable changes to the program since he took over:
Tucker retained a pair of Dantonio assistants as Ron Burton took over the defensive line and defensive coordinator Mike Tressel moved to safeties coach. He also hired former longtime Dantonio assistant Harlon Barnett to coach cornerbacks.
With a late coaching change at the top, Tucker eased the transition by having a trio of assistants players were familiar with. The rest of his hires were from outside, including offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton.
Those changes were reflected on the field in Tucker’s first season. Michigan State’s offense remained one of the worst in the nation but was much more aggressive attacking vertically in the passing game, with some notable results. The defense, which lost seven starters from 2019, regressed while shifting to a new 4-2-5 scheme that introduced a nickelback.
There was another staff change since the end of the season as Tressel, after 14 years with the program, left to become the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. Tucker filled the spot by promoting senior defensive assistant Travares Tillman to cornerbacks coach and Barnett now oversees the entire secondary. Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Chris Kapilovic also had assistant head coach added to his job title.
The day Tucker was hired, he said all players had a fresh start. And Michigan State’s pandemic-delayed season was already underway without a single player on the roster entering the transfer portal. However, there was a notable change in tone in mid-November with the Spartans coming off back-to-back blowout losses. Tucker said “this is compete to play, compete to stay,” while noting portal departures were expected.
The message Tucker sent came just one day after Marcel Lewis entered the transfer portal. The redshirt freshman linebacker was the first of 16 Michigan State players who have entered the portal since Nov. 16 as part of a significant roster overhaul.
The group of players who have entered the portal are a complete mix, from walk-ons to former highly-rated recruits, from starters to those who barely played. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who started the first six games this season, is now at Northern Illinois. Offensive lineman Devontae Dobbs and cornerback/wide receiver Julian Barnett, a pair of former top-60 overall prospects who were the highest-rated members of Michigan State’s 2019 recruiting class, transferred to Memphis.
The transfer portal losses include four linebackers and four cornerbacks. That leaves the Spartans thin on experience at both positions heading into spring practice.
Roster attrition is common every year at every school, especially when there is a coaching change. The lack of a true offseason and inability for coaches to evaluate the roster and players to get an idea of where they stood simply delayed some of the portal departures.
Embracing the portal
The NCAA transfer portal opened in October 2018 and, under Dantonio, it was a tool used almost entirely for players to leave Michigan State instead of arrive in East Lansing. Receiver Jayden Reed, a transfer from Western Michigan who had to sit out the 2019 season, was the lone scholarship addition from the portal during Dantonio’s tenure. There’s been a heavy increase in players entering the portal and Tucker is embracing the opportunity.
Michigan State landed six midyear transfer additions last month in quarterback Anthony Russo (Temple), running back Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest), offensive lineman Jarrett Horst (Arkansas State), defensive end Drew Jordan (Duke), safety Kendall Brooks (Division II North Greenville) and walk-on cornerback Spencer Rowland (Division III Wheaton College). Auburn running back Harold Joiner committed to the Spartans in December but wasn’t a midyear enrollee.
Tucker wants to immediately upgrade the roster and the portal is a significant part of the plan. Russo and Jordan are graduate transfers eligible to play immediately and the NCAA is expected to approve a one-time transfer waiver ahead of the 2021 season that will clear the way for the others.
Adding veterans from other programs has an obvious effect. Two days after Russo committed to Michigan State, Lombardi entered the portal. With the addition of Walker and Joiner’s commitment, the Spartans are on pace to have eight scholarship running backs on the roster in the fall and it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of them leave.
Tucker structured his personnel staff to address the significance of the portal and plans on adding up to nine more transfers before fall camp. That means Michigan State’s roster should look a lot different than it did last fall.
Recruiting footprint altered
Tucker addressed the importance of recruiting Michigan and surrounding states the night he was introduced as the new coach and remains adamant about it. However, the results the first cycle weren’t what he hoped for.
Michigan State signed four high school players from Michigan but none of them rank in the state’s top 15 prospects, according to 247Sports Composite. Rayshaun Benny, a four-star defensive tackle from Oak Park, flipped from the Spartans to sign with Michigan on Feb. 3. East Lansing three-star wide receiver Andrel Anthony passed on going to college in his hometown to sign with the Wolverines.
The program’s recruiting efforts were obviously complicated by COVID-19 resulting in the NCAA implementing a dead period last March that remains in place. Tucker and his staff had only a small group of visitors on campus before everything was shut down and have been forced to rely on phone calls, texts and video conferences.
With a late coaching change and almost no opportunities to meet prospects in person, Tucker’s first recruiting class comes with an asterisk. Whether the Spartans can be more effective with Michigan’s top talent remains unclear but there were notable changes to the recruiting map.
Michigan State’s 2021 recruiting class includes signees from 11 states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. The Spartans recruited some of those states under Dantonio but the footprint clearly expanded with a new staff. The program lists only two all-time lettermen from Alabama (the same number as Denmark) and has only a handful of lettermen from Louisiana, with the last being in the 1970s.
Tucker has been much more visible on social media than Dantonio was, which isn’t a surprise for a new and younger coach. He had a Q&A session with fans on Twitter, hosts a podcast, conducts Instagram live interviews and shows off his sneaker collection. The public was also introduced to his two dogs, English Labradors King Julian and Prince Jackson.
Many of the social media pushes to connect with people came when coaches and players were working remotely due to the pandemic. After the season began, the attempt to connect with the public came on the field, without fans in stadiums.
Michigan State used the 2019 neon uniforms – liked by some, loathed by many others – for an upset win against Northwestern. The Spartans wore “Block S” helmets as a tribute to former coach George Perles for a loss against Indiana and pleased a lot of fans by breaking out “Gruff Sparty” helmets for a loss at Penn State. They planned on using script “State” helmets for a game at Maryland but the Terrapins canceled due to COVID-19 tests.
Tucker made a clear attempt to connect with fans and drum up enthusiasm during his first season. That’s unlikely to change in his second year leading the program.
Related Michigan State football stories:
— to www.mlive.com