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Michigan State Football: Get to know the 2020 coaching staff

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker recently finalized his coaching staff. Let’s learn more about each coach.

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Courtesy of @MSU_Football Twitter account

The new era of Michigan State Spartans football is under way. MSU and head coach Mel Tucker have finalized the 2020 coaching staff, and spring practice gets started on March 17, with the annual Green-White spring game set for April 18.

With a $6 million assistant coaches salary pool, Tucker built his staff thoroughly and methodically. While he didn’t make too many big name splashes, he made a lot of impactful hires — coaches with ties to Michigan State, successful recruiters and (for the majority of hires) those who have a wealth of experience. Most high-level college coaches are already locked into their current schools in mid-February, so putting together this staff was an impressive feat.

The majority of the staff is made up of a mix between Tucker’s Colorado staffers and a few Mark Dantonio disciples from the previous regime. Michigan State also has a former Spartan player taking on his first college coaching job, a highly-regarded wide receivers coach moving over to tight ends, and an exciting defensive coordinator who led turnarounds on that side of the ball at his past two schools. What’s really eye-catching is the fact that this staff has five coaches with defensive coordinator experience on it, counting Tucker.

Let’s get to know each of these coaches a little bit bitter through their backgrounds and bios:

Head coach Mel Tucker:

Coming from a defensive background, Tucker landed his first college head coaching job at the University of Colorado in 2019, where he went 5-7 in his lone year there. Tucker is known as an excellent recruiter, as Colorado’s 2020 class ranked 36th nationally — seven spots higher than Michigan State. Prior to his stint in Boulder, Tucker was the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach on Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia. Before that, he served as assistant head coach/defensive backs coach for Nick Saban at Alabama. Tucker also spent time with Saban at LSU in 2000, and of course during his first stint at Michigan State in 1997 and 1998. Tucker coached under Jim Tressel at Ohio State from 2001-2004, and of note, he worked with Dantonio at both MSU and OSU. He also spent time with Miami (OH) in 1999.

Additionally, Tucker brings an abundance of NFL experience to East Lansing. His first gig in the pros was with the Cleveland Browns from 2005 through 2008, working as DBs coach and eventually defensive coordinator. His next NFL stop was with a team very near and dear to my heart, the Jacksonville Jaguars, from 2009-2012 as defensive coordinator. He served as interim head coach in 2011 after Jack Del Rio was fired and stayed on one more year under Mike Mularkey in 2012 as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. He then moved on to the Chicago bears, serving as DC in 2013 and 2014.

Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson

Johnson is entering his 25th year of coaching. He served as Tucker’s offensive coordinator at Colorado in 2019. Colorado averaged 388.5 total yards per game, which ranked ninth in Pac-12 and 83rd nationally. CU was OK rushing the football, as the Buffaloes averaged 150.3 yards per game, which was fifth in the conference and substantially better than Michigan State in this aspect (127.2). The passing game struggled, as Colorado was ninth in the Pac-12 and 61st in the NCAA at just 238.2 yards per game — Michigan State ranked 55th in the nation. The real concern was the low mark of 23.5 points per game, which ranked 100th nationally. All of that said, the final S&P+ rankings actually ranked Colorado’s offense fairly high at 51st, so there is reason for optimism here.

Previously, Johnson was with Tucker at Georgia from 2017-2018. He’s also spent time with Minnesota, University of Louisiana, Central Michigan, Louisville, Southern Mississippi, Kansas and Missouri. Johnson has held the offensive coordinator job with four other FBS schools (Southern Miss, Louisiana, Minnesota and Colorado). Johnson will also serve as quarterbacks coach for MSU. He’s held that role with Colorado, Minnesota, Louisiana, Central Michigan, Kansas and Southern Miss.

Tucker recently stated that Jay Johnson’s is “multiple” and “adaptable.” He will structure his offense at MSU around the personnel of the team and create his schemes from there.

Offensive line coach/running game coordinator Chris Kapilovic

Kapilovic gets a significant raise at Michigan State, and this looks like a home run hire for Tucker. He spent the previous year with Tucker at Colorado in the same roles. Under Kapilovic’s tutelage, Colorado’s offensive line play wildly improved. The Buffaloes were second in the Pac-12 in terms of fewest sacks allowed in 2019, giving up just 21 in 12 games. The previous year, CU ranked 11th out of the 12 conference teams. The Buffaloes also averaged 150.3 yards per game on the ground, which was a 7.3-yard improvement from 2018. Overall, Pro Football Focus ranked Colorado’s offensive line 54th nationally. Previously, he had spent seven seasons with North Carolina, working as offensive line coach/run game coordinator, and then eventually taking on the added roles of offensive coordinator and associate head coach. Additionally, he’s coached at Southern Mississippi, Kansas, Alabama State and Missouri State.

Kapilovic has also been a successful recruiter. In fact, 247Sports recently him ranked as the second-best recruiter in all of the Pac-12 in 2020. He helped CU land two top-10 prospects out of the state of Arizona in four-star defensive end Jason Harris — the No. 13 wide side defensive end in the country — and wide receiver Brendan Rice, who is the No. 68 wide out in the country (and is the son of NFL Hall of Famer, Jerry). He was also the primary recruiter for all three of Colorado’s 2020 offensive line commits.

Wide receivers coach Courtney Hawkins

Hawkins, a Michigan State alumnus, enters his first stint as a college coach. With that said he has plenty of experience in college and professional football, as well as in the high school coaching ranks. Hawkins was an All-Big 10 wide receiver under George Perles from 1988 through 1991. He ranks eighth in school history with 138 receptions, sixth in receiving yards (2,210) and 16th in touchdowns (12). Hawkins was selected in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and spent nine years there. He then played four additional seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hawkins finished his NFL career with 366 catches for 4,573 and 18 touchdowns.

Hawkins clearly has a ton of knowledge about the wide receiver position, but will that translate to the college coaching ranks? His most recent role was as head coach and athletic director at his alma mater, Flint Beecher High School. Hawkins spent 14 seasons with the Buccaneers, leading the school to 12 playoff appearances, three conference championship, three division titles and one regional championship. He was named Regional Athletic Director of the Year by the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association in 2018. His strong recruiting ties, especially in the state of Michigan, will prove to be valuable for MSU.

Tight ends coach Ted Gilmore

Gilmore is a 25-year coaching veteran who has spent time in both the NCAA and NFL. His most recent stint was in Madison as wide receivers coach for Wisconsin from 2015 through 2019. He also served as the Badgers’ passing game coordinator since 2017. During his time with the Badgers, Wisconsin won three Big Ten West titles, and took home trophies in the Cotton, Orange and Pinstripe Bowls. The team also appeared in a Rose Bowl game. Gilmore directly coached several receivers who earned All-Big Ten recognition in some capacity, including Quintez Cephus, Alex Erickson and Jazz Peavy.

Prior to Wisconsin, Gilmore spent time in the NFL, serving as the Oakland Raiders’ wide receiver coach from 2012 through 2014. Before Oakland, Gilmore coached wide receivers — including current NFL players Robert Woods and Marqise Lee — for USC in 2011, where he was named as FootballScoop’s Wide Receivers Coach of the Year. Other stops for Gilmore include Nebraska (2004-2010), Colorado (2003-2004), Purdue (2001-2002), Houston (2000), Kanas (1999) and Wyoming (1994-1998). The majority of Gilmore’s experience is as a wide receivers coach, but he did coach tight ends early in his career. Gilmore played wide receiver for Butler Community College (Kansas) in 1986 and 1987, before playing his final two years in college at Wyoming.

Running backs coach Will Peagler

Peagler is the youngest coach on staff at just 34-years-old, but Tucker refers to him as a “rising star.” Similar to Hawkins, Peagler lacks a lot of positional college coaching experience. Unlike Hawkins, Peagler has slowly worked his way up through the NCAA ranks. He was director of quality control for Colorado’s offense last season. Prior to that, he served as director of player personnel and quality control coordinator for Louisiana in 2018. In 2017, Peagler worked as a graduate assistant with the Georgia Bulldogs, alongside Mel Tucker and Jay Johnson, where he assisted with the offensive line on the College Football Playoff runner-up. In fact, Peagler is quite familiar with Johnson, having also coached with him at Colorado, Minnesota (2016, assistant offensive quality control coach) and during his first stint with Louisiana (2011-2013, offensive quality control assistant/offensive graduate assistant).

Other experiences for Peagler include offensive coordinator/offensive line coach at Olive Branch High School in Mississippi in 2015, as well as run game coordinator and recruiting coordinator for Coffeyville Community College (Kansas) in 2014. As a recruiter, Peagler helped Louisiana notch the No. 1 class in the Sun Belt Conference for 2019, and was on staff for Georgia’s 2018 recruiting class — the consensus No. 1 class in the nation.

Special teams coordinator Ross Els

Els has been coaching for 30 years, spending nearly all of that time in the college ranks in versatile roles. He most recently served as inside linebackers and special teams coach at Colorado. Els was originally hired as inside linebackers coach at CU by Mike MacIntyre in 2017, and Tucker decided to retain him on his 2019 staff. Before his time in Boulder, Els actually served as a Big Ten defensive coordinator with Purdue in 2016. He also worked as DC with New Mexico State in 2003 and 2004. As far as coaching special teams, in addition to Colorado, Els has had held that role with New Mexico State (2001-2002), Nebraska (2012-2014) and Ohio (2007-2010).

Els also has extensive experience coaching linebackers and defensive backs. He’s coached linebackers for New Mexico State, Ohio, Lincoln Southwest High School (Nebraska) and, of course. Colorado. He’s coached the whole secondary with Nebraska-Omaha, Northern Iowa and Hastings College (Nebraska), while focusing on safeties at Purdue and New Mexico State. Additionally, Els coached on the offensive side of the ball as quarterbacks coach for one season with Hastings College in 1995, and he was later promoted head coach there, from 1997 through 2000. After coaching linebackers and special teams at Ohio for three seasons, Els added the assistant head coach title in 2010. He played safety for Nebraska-Omaha from 1984 through 1987.

Defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton

This appears to be an excellent hire. Hazelton spent last season as defensive coordinator for Kansas State on Chris Klieman’s staff. He led an incredible turnaround for the Wildcats’ defense. In 2019, Kansas State was the No. 2 team in the entire nation in third-down defense, allowing opposing offenses to convert just 28 percent of the time. Prior to Hazelton’s arrival, the Wildcats ranked eighth in the Big 12 Conference and 110th in the FBS with a 44.8 percent clip. KSU only allowed 224 first downs, which ranked 15th in the the NCAA (second in Big 12), and was second in the league (33rd in NCAA) against the pass, giving up just 202.9 ypg. K-State ranked fourth in the Big 12 in total defense at 368.4 ypg, which was a dramatic improvement from 2018 (403.4 ypg).

Before KSU, Hazelton turned the Wyoming Cowboys defense into a top-25 unit nationally in both 2017 and 2018. The Cowboys were also top-30 in scoring defense both years, and in 2017, Hazelton led the No. 1 defense in takeaways in the entire NCAA. Prior to that, Hazelton spent three seasons with my Jacksonville Jaguars as assistant linebackers coach (2014 -2016). He helped coach a defensive unit that ranked in the top-10 in the NFL in points, total yards and passing yards allowed in 2016. Hazelton held the role of defensive coordinator with Nevada (2013), North Dakota State (2010-2011) and Missouri Southern State (2004-2005). Other coaching stops include USC (2012), Michigan Tech (2006), St. Olaf (2002-2003) and his alma matter, Fort Lewis College (1996-1999).

Defensive line coach Ron Burton

Following Dantono’s retirement, Burton was reportedly hired to Tom Allen’s staff at Indiana to work as the defensive line coach, but Tucker reached out with an offer to retain him, and and Burton ultimately chose to stay in East Lansing. Burton is a well-respected defensive line coach who joined MSU in 2013. He’s the only person who has ever won FootballScoop’s National Defensive Line Coach of the Year Award twice (2013 and 2018). After coaching the whole defensive line during his first four seasons in East Lansing, he switched to solely focusing on defensive tackles in 2017. He will now go back to coaching the entire defensive line under Tucker. Since Burton arrived, MSU has led the Big Ten in rushing defense four times: 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2018 — including being No. 1 in the nation in 2018.

Before heading to MSU, Burton coached the defensive line at Air Force from 2003 through 2012. He’s also coached at Grand Valley State (2002), Indiana (1997-2001), Eastern Michigan (1995-1996) Morehead State (1992-1993) and North Carolina (1992-1993). Burton played collegiately at North Carolina, and spent four seasons in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals and Los Angeles (now Las Vegas) Raiders.

Defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett

Barnett makes his triumphant return to Michigan State as secondary coach. Similar to Hawkins, Barnett played under Perles as well, (1986-1989), and the two were teammates for two seasons (1988-1989). Barnett originally coached defensive backs for Michigan State under Mark Dantonio from 2007-2014 before being promoted to co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach from 2015-2017. He has won Big Ten championships with MSU as both a player and coach. Barnett then left MSU in 2018 to become Florida State’s defensive coordinator under Willie Taggart.

Before Michigan State, Barnett was with Dantonio at Cincinnati — his hometown — from 2004 through 2006 as secondary coach. Prior to that, he worked at LSU as a graduate assistant under Saban in 2003 — the year the Tigers won a national championship. Barnett got his first coaching experience at Princeton High School in Cincinnati from 1998-2002, first serving as defensive backs coach before moving his way up to defensive coordinator. Barnett was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1990. He also played for the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings, spending seven seasons in the NFL.

Safeties coach Mike Tressel

While an earlier version of this article was presumed Tressel will coach linebackers, he will actually be coaching safeties. There isn’t currently a linebacker coach listed on the staff. Tressel has been with MSU since Dantiono took over, signing with the school in December of 2006. He also worked with Dantonio at Cincinnati from 2004 through 2006. He originally served as linebackers coach and special teams coordinator for his first eight seasons with the Spartans. Tressel was then promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2014, alongside Barnett. He held that role until 2018, when Barnett left for Florida State, and Tressel took over sole control of the defensive coordinator spot. That year, Tressel led the No. 1 defense against the run, No. 8 scoring defense, and No. 10 total defense in all of FBS. In fact, with Tressel on staff, MSU has ranked in the top-10 in total defense six times.

Tucker has known Tressel and his family for quite some time. Tucker coached under Jim Tressel — Mike’s uncle — at Ohio State from 2001 through 2004. The younger Tressel was also on the OSU staff as a graduate assistant linebackers coach in 2002 and 2003. Prior to that, (Mike) Tressel worked at Wartburg College in Iowa (2001) and South Dakota (1996-2000).

Additionally, Jason Novak takes over for the retired Ken Mannie as head strength and conditioning coach.

Update: Here are the coaches talking about their roles at Michigan State and why they chose to coach here. What’s interesting is, nobody mentions coaching the linebackers. I wonder if either Els or Hazelton will focus on that position in addition to their coordinator roles.

So — that took entirely too much of my time to research and write, but hopefully you learned something new.

Obviously, we can’t judge how well this staff will do together until we see the live product. But based on their backgrounds, experiences and prior track records, how do you feel about the completed staff?


What is your stance on MSU’s 2020 coaching staff?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    This is an excellent staff all the way around!
    (160 votes)
  • 0%
    I love the offensive staff. I am not sure about the defensive staff.
    (0 votes)
  • 24%
    I love the defensive staff. I am not sure about the offensive staff.
    (104 votes)
  • 35%
    I am in wait-and-see mode.
    (150 votes)
  • 1%
    Hate it!
    (7 votes)
421 votes total Vote Now