Michigan State on quest to sustain success under Mel Tucker
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan State Spartans are openly talking about winning a national championship, confidently saying they can top last year’s 11-win season.
Mel Tucker, entering his third season with the Spartans, knows what it takes to win it all. He did it as an assistant on championship-winning coaching staffs at Alabama in 2015 and with Ohio State in 2002.
“Yeah, we won 11 games last year, but we want to win championships,” fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson said. “Coach Tucker has been on national championship-winning teams so we trust him, and his process.”
Tucker has made it clear that what Michigan State did last year, after going 2-5 in the pandemic shortened season, was simply not enough.
“It was just really a step in the right direction,” said Tucker, who won the Big Ten coach of the year award last year and a new contract that pays him $9.5 million per season. “We did some good things, but nobody cares what you did last year.”
The 15th-ranked Spartans lost six starters on offense, including award-winning running back Kenneth Walker III, and just three starters on defense.
“The goal for us is to win every game on our schedule,” Tucker said. “That’s our stated goal. Our goal is to finish first. That’s our goal. And we need to bring a championship to East Lansing.”
Walker leaves a void, but quarterback Payton Thorne and do-it-all Jayden Reed return to give the team a potent passing game that could open up the running game.
Michigan State was shaky against the pass last season, and hopes to be much better with an experienced group that has added Georgia transfer Ameer Speed at cornerback.
SHOES TO FILL
Walker, a Wake Forest transfer, ranked second in the FBS with 1,636 yards rushing and was among the nation’s leaders with 19 touchdowns.
Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard and Wisconsin Jalen Berger hope to follow Walker’s footsteps as high-impact transfers. Elijah Collins, who ran for 988 yards in 2019, Jordon Simmons, Davion Primm and Harold Joiner are returning players in the mix.
“It will be interesting to see who is the true No. 1, or if it might be running back by committee,” receiver Tre Mosley said.
NAMES TO KNOW
Reed, an AP All-Big Ten all-purpose player, returned two punts for touchdowns last season and had team highs in catches (59), yards receiving (1,026) and receiving touchdowns (10).
Jacob Slade earned a spot on the AP All-Bowl team after the 6-4, 315-pound defensive tackle had six tackles and 1 1/2 sacks to help Michigan State earn a New Year’s Six bowl win over Pittsburgh.
Henderson had 96 tackles last season to rank among Big Ten leaders.
POINT OF EMPHASIS
Michigan State was statistically the worst team against the pass in major college football last year, giving up 324.8 yards passing per game.
Tucker, who coached defensive backs at Alabama and Ohio State, is taking a hands-on approach with team’s cornerbacks The former Georgia assistant coach also added Speed, who played for the Bulldogs and is taking advantage of a sixth season of eligibility.
TOUGH TO TOP
Thorne threw 27 touchdowns last season, breaking Kirk Cousins’ school record set in 2011.
The Spartans open at home Sept. 2 against Western Michigan. They have a tough stretch in October, hosting Ohio State and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks before having an extra week to prepare to play at Michigan on Oct. 29. Tucker is 2-0 against the rival Wolverines.