Mel Tucker’s arrival in East Lansing was a surprise to just about everyone involved, probably including Tucker himself. Mark Dantonio’s haphazard retirement, coupled with a painfully chaotic search process, made for plenty of low blows and high drama in the span of just a few days. Nevertheless, when the dust settled, Tucker was named the Michigan State Spartans’ next coach and standard-bearer.
His first task, once the ink was dry on his blush-worthy contract, was to convene his own coaching search. Coach Tucker had to assess the current crop of MSU assistants, jettison the dead weight (of which there was far too much) and hire the people that he thought could help him get to the promised land (Indianapolis.)
To date, coach Tucker has retained three members of Dantonio’s staff; Mike Tressel, Ron Burton, and Harlon Barnett (who left MSU for Florida State in 2018, but is returning in 2020). It’s no coincidence that all three will contribute to the defensive side of the ball. He’s filled out the rest of his staff with a solid crop of handpicked coaches from around the country. Now that coaching personal is in place, it’s time to get down to “bidness” as the time for “business” has already passed, somewhere around national signing day.
Speaking of which, I purposely left recruiting out of this to-do list because that’s a 24/7 job rather than something to be crossed off of a list. For better or worse, it’s just a part of everyday life, kind of like breathing air, or dry heaving at the sight of a block M. Recruiting aside, here are the top three items that should be on CMT’s MSU spring cleaning list.
1. Start creating a culture for success.
This has to be priority one. A team’s culture starts at the top. Coach Tucker was able to attract some high-caliber assistants away from other power five schools, using the university’s ample coffers and newfound fortitude. While this is a net positive, it also means that the coaching staff is coming from different programs with variations in history and philosophy. Coach Tucker’s task is to take this football-diverse group of assistants and lead them in the direction of his overall vision. Once he gets the buy-in of his assistants, the players, in theory, should follow.
One advantage that coach Tucker has in this regard is that he doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel at MSU. He’s been here before, and he has Big Ten pedigree, as a former Badger player. He wants to build this team around solid fundamentals, aggressive defense, and a workmanlike run game. At his best, Coach Dantonio mastered all three of these tactics, so we know it can be done at MSU, and it can lead to great success.
2. FIND A QUARTERBACK, ASAP!
Rocky Lombardi served as Brian Lewerke’s backup for the past two seasons. There was a lot of buzz around Lombardi his first year as the Spartans’ number two. That’s likely due to the third commandment of MSU fandom: “Thou shalt place unrealistic expectations on thy backup QB.” Nevertheless, what we’ve seen of Rocky in the past two seasons has been a bit…rocky. During Lewerke’s 2018 injury hiatus, Lombardi started three games, and finished with a record of two wins and one loss. He’s played a total of 15 games so far for the green and white, but has been consistently inconsistent.
The other two locked and loaded options are Theo Day and Payton Thorne. The former has been on campus for two years, but has only played a few inconsequential snaps. The latter ran the scout team in his first year, but has yet to play a single snap in a full game.
The final option might be getting a QB from the clearance shelf, AKA the transfer portal. This could ultimately be Coach Tucker’s best option to give him and his staff a little breathing room, as an experienced signal caller could provide instant leadership for the team, which may be much needed.
Hopefully, the quarterback situation will work itself out throughout spring practice, as it often does. However, if the starter doesn’t present himself (or herself. Let’s be honest, we need to be open to anything) sooner rather than later, Coach Tucker may have to get creative.
3. Build an offense.
Michigan State’s “offense” over the past few years has been hard to watch; mostly because it didn’t exist in the known universe. If Dantonio would have fielded a team consisting of an angry two-year-old, the Aflac duck, and a day-old pastrami sandwich, I’m confident they could’ve put up at least three points against Wisconsin last year. That’s more than can be said for MSU’s no-headed monster.
To be fair, injuries on the offensive line have taken their toll over the past couple of seasons, making it difficult for Lewerke and company to gain any momentum. When you’re staring down the barrel of your fourth option at left tackle, you’re probably not going to put up record numbers. That being said, even when healthy, the Spartan offense over the past few seasons has been pretty anemic, bordering on depressing.
Blaming the sluggish offense on poor play-calling would be the easy way out; the proverbial low hanging fruit. That’s why we should definitely blame the sluggish offense on poor play-calling. Sometimes the low hanging fruit just happens to be the juiciest. Players can’t make plays if they’re not put in a position to do so, and that’s where Michigan State’s offense has found itself far too often since 2016. That’s where coach Tucker will hopefully show us some major changes.
Mel Tucker has his work cut out for him. The building of a cohesive and competent offense in the next few months will be an essential ingredient for both short-term respectability, and long-term success. To do this, he’ll have to master all of the other tasks I mentioned above, which is no easy feat. From recruiting, to building a culture, and choosing a QB, putting together a solid offense is an achievable goal, albeit a complicated one. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day (fun fact: Ann Arbor was built in four days, mostly from old scratch-offs and discarded chicken wire.)
This is a short to-do list, but one with a lot of moving parts. Hopefully coach Tucker is up to the task. In the meantime, the rest of us will continue to watch, and hope. Mark Dantonio laid a solid foundation for many of us to believe in the dream of Spartan Football. In recent years, we’ve all started to toss and turn a bit. If Coach Tucker can start knocking items off his to-do list this spring, we might all just start dreaming again. Then maybe he can get to those cloudy windows in the Skandalaris Center.