Michigan State Spartans defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton met with the media via Zoom call this afternoon, buddy and spoke about a variety of topics.
We have you covered on everything you need to know regarding what Hazelton had to say, and what we can expect from the Michigan State defense moving forward.
Earlier this week, Michigan State — along with the rest of the Big Ten — began padded practices. This of course was a big change for the program this year, which lost out on spring ball and summer practices due to the global pandemic. The team got more used to meeting each other over video calls than actually meeting on the field.
Hazelton said the players were excited to finally get the pads on, but of course there is a lot to improve on.
One of the biggest questions about this new look defense under head coach Mel Tucker and Hazelton is what the scheme will look like. That still isn’t quite figured out yet, as the staff is still trying to find best fits based on personnel.
“We’re trying to install as much we can, Hazelton said. “We have great minds all over the place and everybody’s run a different scheme, and we’re trying to take the best of each defense and put it in, but we got to be able to make it work together, so we’re gonna figure that out. That’s the first thing we started with was four down (linemen) because that was our personnel and we’re gonna see how we move — who can play d-tackle, who’s big enough to move inside, who’s a good enough guy to stand up and do some dropping and stuff like that. So we’re figuring that piece out as we continue to go. The start was good for us, and then we broke and came back, so we’re still implementing our defense right now, so what that will look like will be dependent on how the guys learn.”
As for whether or not it will be more of the 4-3 look we are used to with Michigan State, or perhaps a move to a 3-4, Hazelton said there are a lot of commonalties between both schemes, perhaps alluding to a multiple look.
“The 3-4/4-3 stuff — there’s some common things in both schemes,” Hazelton said. “As long as it’s a deal where you can line up here and play this coverage — you might be rolling your coverage or whatever. And you can also take those same dudes and move them over a little bit and it changes the gaps and makes a little bit different front, but you can run the same coverage. So, a little bit of that is, as we work through it, how do you work the front and the coverage together? What can you do out of each? And that’s not as complicated as it may seem sometimes, but it’s definitely hard when you get into finite points going down the road. So you might be a little more vanilla as you move forward and all the different things that you see out of each package. That’s the hard part.”
Another common question throughout the pandemic has been how the lack of practicing, and the delayed season has affected the team and staff. One thing Hazelton mentioned that perhaps hasn’t been talked about much previously is Tucker’s experience in the NFL lockout year in 2011, when he was a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coaching staff as defensive coordinator.
Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton says that Mel Tucker’s experience with the NFL lockouts in the past helped guide the MSU football program through the difficulties the pandemic caused.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 1, 2020
While it was a much different situation than what we are facing in 2020, the NFL was locked out from March through late July in 2011 due to collective bargaining issues. That meant there was no free agency and training camp, and players were restricted from seeing team doctors, entering or working out at team facilities, or communicating with coaches during that time period. There was also a preseason game that was canceled. Tucker’s experience through that helped guide his MSU staff in this strange year.
“The good new is Coach Tucker was around in the lockout year in the NFL,” Hazelton said. “So, he did a good job kind of preparing us. ‘Hey, let’s go through and say we have four weeks, say we have three weeks, say we have eight weeks or say we have a normal (amount of time).’ You know, for us as coaches, we can just dive into the X’s and the O’s and do all those kinds of things. But we spent a lot more of our summertime just really working different plans. Like, ‘What if we do get this,’ so when we got to the point where they said ‘Hey, you guys can go,’ well we just pulled out that plan and started working that plan because it was readily prepared. So that helped us really get our minds right.
“And then it’s ‘we think we can do this plan,’ but when we actually get to it, you know, now we’re a few days into camp, really starting over when we get into the pads, so we went back to page one again to try to reinstall it. As we move forward, we’re gonna see how the guys really play in pads when it’s real ball — you know, not in pajamas and stuff like that. And we’ll see how far we can progress. Because when you start to see guys start to slow down, well then we know, OK, we need to go back and redo it again. And that’s kind of what we’re doing now that we got pads on.”
Other notes and quotes:
On what clues Hazelton can use to see what he has in his guys, given the lack of practice thus far, and the importance of communication:
“Those (first four days of camp in August) were really good because we got something on tape, so we’re watching the mistakes that our guys made and we can pinpoint those and work those techniques when you’re coming back to practice again,” Hazelton said. “You have the chance to work those fundamentals, the ones we messed up the first time.
“The clues come, like we talk about, communication (is) huge on defense and in all of football, right? When you start to put the (defensive) players on the field and the offense does something and it’s quiet, OK, there’s a clue. Or if you get a guy or two that (says) ‘ahh, I’m supposed to say something,’ OK, that’s another clue. Once the guys start playing slow or they’re not as loud and the communication (isn’t there), all of those are things that say ‘OK, we have to take a step back, wait, let us catch up to what we’re installing, now let’s go on to the next thing.’”
On what Hazelton’s idea of Michigan State was coming in, and what guys have stood out so far:
Hazelton says that Michigan State has always had good defenses, which is something that helped draw him to East Lansing.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 1, 2020
Adds that the team is mature, has great leaders and works hard.
“I think when you go to some place new, there’s anxiety for us as coaches just to see how the guys are going to be,” Hazelton said. “One great thing about coming here — as an outsider, we watch ball too, we kind of know what everybody does — Michigan State’s always been great on defense. That’s one of the things that drew me to come up here and talk to these guys, to see why. ‘Hey, what makes it so special?’
“There’s still some young guys, but as a group, we’re more mature than a lot of the teams we’ve been around in the past,” Hazelton said. “You start to talk through this, and, OK, they start to understand concepts, they start to understand the basics, they understand the universal things. You know, in this situation, in this down and distance, this is what teams do. They understand those things, which makes them easier to coach. They can connect the dots even though you’re changing some defensive scheme stuff on them. It’s been really good there.
“As an overall, we have some great leaders out there. You have an Antjuan Simmons running around the field. He’s a different cat when he starts talking, or Xavier (Henderson). Those guys bring great leadership and they can bring the quality of practice up. And the third thing I’ll say about these guys — they work hard. They’ve been trained for a long time, and they just do. There’s times we try to fluster them and work them harder than it’s even going to be in a game and they just keep grinding through it. That’s a wonderful thing to have.”
On redshirt freshman defensive end Michael Fletcher:
“He’s a really smart young man,” Hazelton said. “He does work hard. He’s a guy that runs to the ball and he strives to win and learn. His length is wonderful, as a coach you love those guys that are long like that and they can do all those things. Even when he was going through the stuff in pajamas, everybody can kind of look good there, but his pad level is a little high and we got to keep working on that. As we get into these padded days, that will tell with time and see how good he can get off the ball, what we can use him in, see what his length does. Especially up front, it’s hard to totally evaluate that guy, but we’re excited about him.”
On what impressed him on the first day of pads:
“It starts up front,” Hazelton said. “You see the d-tackles, you got guys in there, young guys too, like Jalen Hunt, guys scraping around that haven’t gotten a lot of playing time before. And we’re a physical offense — those guys are holding the line of scrimmage and fighting and trying to use their technique. Generally, the first day you put on pads, the things you’ve learned up to this point get thrown out the window. Those guys up front held the line of scrimmage for the most part, and they did a good job competing.
“And then to actually see the (line)backers, a guy like Chase Kline or Simmons or Noah Harvey come back and actually hit a guy and thud him and stop him — those are things you like to see. It starts to give you a feel of your personnel.”
On losing a lot from last year’s defense and guys who could step up this season:
Hazelton says even though the #Spartans lost a lot on the defensive line, a lot of guys have played plenty of football, such as Naquan Jones, Drew Beesley and Jacob Slade. Also named Maverick Hansen and Jalen Hunt as names to watch.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 1, 2020
“You see guys like Naquan Jones or Jacob Slade, they were on tape last year too, they used to rotate in,” Hazelton said. “The cool thing about defensive line is, sure, you lose a bunch of guys, but there’s a lot of guys with a lot of game experience in there. You know, Drew Beesley’s played football in the Big Ten. Jack Camper is another guy that’s played a little bit — he needs to keep going but he’s doing pretty good. The inside guys power through. You know Naquan’s tough, and he’s got a little bit of juice to him. Jacob Slade’s a super strong guy, he gives you the physicalness that you wanted.
“Really what you’re looking at is the guys behind them, such as Maverick Hansen — Maverick’s shown some flashes of strength and power. You know who’s on the up-climb is Jalen Hunt. He’s doing some things and showing some flashes that you say ‘this is the reason they recruited him before’ — the kid can turn into a really good player.”
On the defensive backfield:
Hazelton names Dom Long, Kalon Gervin, Julian Barnett, Davion Williams, Shakur Brown and Chris Jackson as guys impressing in the defensive backfield. Says a lot of guys are in the mix and they’re looking for the best formula to set the lineup.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 1, 2020
“Dom Long’s played pretty good,” Hazelton said. “A guy that I’m really impressed with is Kalon Gervin. He’s a guy that’s outside playing corner and doing good things, he’s got really good feet and can stay over the top. Julian Barnett, we’re excited about him, he makes progress every single day. Davion (Williams) is a guy you can see it, too, and Chris (Jackson), and we still got Shak Brown. (Cornerbacks coach) Harlon (Barnett) has done a great job with those guys just making them better and better and better. There’s some guys that are developing and we’re trying to figure out what the best mix of DBs (is).
“Now it’s for real, you want to be able to say ‘if we’re going to play a third cornerback, who is it going to be and who’s the most physical guy to play inside?’ If we’re going to play a guy at safety, how much can we put Tre Person in the box? He’s a little bit light, but he’s got really good range and is doing a good job. Or a Michael Dowell or Emmanuel (Flowers). All of those guys are in the mix and we’re just trying to find the right formula for them all. They’ve been mixing around positions too, now that we have pads on, and you’re banging around a little bit, you might have a (better) idea. It’s starting to clear up a little bit.”
On Jacub Panasiuk’s return:
Hazelton says Jacub Panasiuk has a “want” to get better and a “want” to be really good. Says he’s great to work with and alludes to how big it is for the defense to have him back in the fold. Says he provides experience and an example to other players on how to be coachable.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 1, 2020
“That’s what you want — a guy who can rush the passer and do some things and provide a little leadership,” Hazelton said. “Just the amount of plays and experience he’s got just made us better by him coming back. He’s a great dude. He has a want to get better and a want to be really good. You talk about those guys who say ‘coach me, coach’ — he’s one of those guys. You can be hard on him and keep giving him more because he has the same expectations.
“When you have guys like him or Drew Beesley, they up the level of want to and intensity in the room. Young guys see that and understand that’s acceptable — they don’t get down on themselves or their feelings hurt. It’s great to have a guy who has experience back first of all, and a guy that you can coach and he provides an example of how to take coaching for everybody else. That’s leadership.”