Mel Tucker isn’t inheriting a broken program from Mark Dantonio, the winningest coach in school history. But it’s a program in need of a burst of energy, which is something Michigan State officials believed Tucker could provide when they enticed him to leave Colorado after one season with a contract that will pay him $5.5 million annually for six years.
Tucker, 48, has coached for national championship teams under Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Nick Saban at Alabama, and he nearly coordinated the defense to another one under Kirby Smart at Georgia. The former Michigan State graduate assistant under Saban is bringing SEC-style aggressiveness to the recruiting trail but doesn’t yet have a roster capable of contending in the Big Ten East.
Previewing Michigan State's Offense for 2020
It’s unclear who will replace Brian Lewerke under center. Junior Rocky Lombardi had mixed results as a spot starter in 2018 when Lewerke was injured. Last year, in mop-up time, Lombardi struggled. Sophomore Theo Day has size, arm strength and decent athleticism. Swashbuckling redshirt freshman Payton Thorne was a rising threat to win the job in the spring, if practice had taken place.
Ten returning offensive linemen have started at least one game, due to widespread injuries in 2018 and ’19. Several of them have played functional football at some point in their careers. Senior center Matt Allen and senior left tackle AJ Arcuri are keepers. When healthy, guard/tackle Kevin Jarvis is a standout. He has recovered from last year’s knee injury.
New offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic had a strong run at North Carolina under Larry Fedora and should be able to find a capable mix.
New offensive coordinator Jay Johnson demonstrated the beginnings of balance during short stints at Minnesota and Colorado. Now he’ll dig in at Michigan State with decent potential at running back and wide receiver.
Sophomore Elijah Collins rushed for 988 yards and 4.5 per attempt last year. He offers a good, not great, mix of acceleration, vision, agility and power.
Michigan State’s top three pass catchers are gone, but talent is in place. Jalen Nailor had 15 catches in four games last year despite injuries. He has been explosive when healthy. Tre Mosley emerged with 21 catches last year as a true freshman, and he can snare it in a crowd. Transfer Jayden Reed was a Freshman All-American at Western Michigan in 2018 with 56 catches.
Slippery tight end Matt Dotson had 16 catches in eight games last year before injuries sidelined him. His blocking remains a question mark.
Previewing Michigan State's Defense for 2020
The Spartans posted national rankings of No. 18, 7 and 10, respectively, in total defense in the past three years under coordinator Mike Tressel. Tressel is back, as safeties coach. Scottie Hazelton arrives as Tucker’s new defensive coordinator from Kansas State.
Hazelton likes the tradition, toughness and habits of the players he is inheriting, but only two regular starters return.
Jacub Panasiuk was expected to be a well-rounded battler at defensive end, but he decided to opt out of the 2020 season. Panasiuk plans to take a redshirt year and return in 2021. Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade are ready to play good football as new starters at defensive tackle.
Antjuan Simmons is a smart leader and one of the most versatile linebackers in the Big Ten. He can play the Mike or the slot, or anywhere necessary.
Inside ’backer Noah Harvey was solid when pressed into starting duty last year, amassing 14 stops in the bowl game.
Michigan State’s secondary wasn’t up to the Dantonio standard last year. Harlon Barnett, Dantonio’s long-time defensive backs coach, is back coaching cornerbacks for Tucker after a short, unsuccessful gig as defensive coordinator at Florida State. The talent pool in the secondary isn’t as strong as it was when Barnett built a great group from 2011-15, but he’s the man to retool it.
Xavier Henderson is ready to contend for all-conference honors at safety. Shakur Brown started the final five games of last season at cornerback, and Tre Person has experience at safety, but both need to show more consistency.
Previewing Michigan State's Specialists for 2020
Placekicker Matt Coghlin was first-team All-Big Ten in 2018 and honorable mention last year after struggling at times. He has hit three-game winners in his career. Junior walk-on punter Tyler Hunt averaged 40.1 yards per attempt as an injury replacement in 2018. He will compete with UTEP grad transfer Mitchell Crawford to replace the graduated Jake Hartbarger. Nailor and Reed are options in the return game, which needs improvement.
With the task of installing a new defense and offense amid an uncertain quarterback situation, under a new head coach, the spring shutdown stalled Tucker’s transition plan and likely hurt Michigan State more than any team in the Big Ten. Add one of the hardest schedules in the country, with two challenging non-conference tilts against Miami and at BYU, and the quest to achieve a 13th bowl bid in 14 years for this program will be a difficult one. A repeat of last year’s 7–6 season with a bowl win would be a constructive first step for Tucker.
National Ranking: 50
(Top photo by Matthew Mitchell/Michigan State Athletics)