On Wednesday afternoon, Michigan State University’s defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton met with members of the media via Zoom to discuss the current progress that the Spartan defense has been making during spring practice.
During the call, he discussed the benefits of having a relatively normal spring practice, the distribution of youth and experience on the defense, and the players who are starting to take on a leadership role.
From “What” to “How and Why”
During the call, Coach Hazelton opened by reflecting a little bit on his first season and drew contrast to the chance that the staff is getting now to finally fully install their defense.
“Last year is still a little bit of a blur to us all...We are super excited to be in spring ball right now,” Hazelton said. “It’s really where you get a chance to develop the guys and get them to really understanding the details of what you are trying to do.”
Coach Hazelton admits that they had to simplify the installation of the defense last year due to the unique situation of a new staff coming to East Lansing amidst the onset of a global pandemic. Once the season started, there was limited time to fix individual problems and the staff was reduced to applying “band-aids” when challenges arose. But, this year and this spring is different.
“We attacked it in kind of a cool way,” Hazelton said. “We had a little bit of time during the weight room time that we could meet with the guys. We took on an NFL model...Let’s reinstall and let’s revisit. And here are some of the things for each player. Here are some of the things you did really good, and here are some of the things that you need to work on.”
Coach Hazelton later added, “The great thing we are looking at is the guys are starting to learn the other parts. It’s not just ‘What do I do?’ because that’s the first thing you try to memorize, ‘What do you want me to do here?’ But now it’s ‘How do you want me to do it? What techniques do you want me to use? Where are my eyes, where are my hands, how do I make this break, how do I play this block? How do I do those things?’”
Hazelton continued: “And the why: ‘Why am I doing this? Why is this part important to the defense?’ It’s the small things that sometimes we were lacking last year. It’s the technique and fundamentals and how it affected everyone else...It’s cool to be going through that stuff.”
A Mix of Youth and Experience
A scan of Michigan State’s roster on the defensive side of the ball reveals an interesting mix of youth and experience. The defensive line seems to be in the best shape with the return of senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and graduate student defensive end Drew Beesley, along with several players that saw a lot of action last year, including redshirt sophomore tackle Jalen Hunt, redshirt junior tackle Dashaun Mallory, redshirt sophomore defensive end Jack Camper, and redshirt junior tackle Jacob Slade. The team also brought in Duke graduate transfer defensive end Drew Jordan this spring.
In the defensive backfield, the Spartans lost starting cornerback and interception-leader Shakur Brown to the NFL Draft, but returns players such as senior safety Xavier Henderson, sophomore cornerback Angelo Grose, and redshirt junior cornerback Kalon Gervin.
In the middle at the linebacker position, the Spartans appear to be more thin. With the departure of last year’s undisputed leader of the defense in Antjuan Simmons (NFL Draft), the Spartans only return redshirt junior Chase Kline and redshirt senior Noah Harvey with any significant game experience to that position.
Coach Hazelton admitted that the lack of depth and experience in the back seven is a concern.
“Every spring there is always a unique situation...It seems like in spring you generally have a shortage somewhere...Every spring you are dealing with anxiety...It takes a really special situation to not,” Hazelton said. “If you’ve got a deficiency somewhere, you have to have a backup plan, and let’s be real, we’ve all gotten good at those this last year. You have to plan for that.”
At the same time, Hazelton is also looking on the bright side of things: “The good news is that the young guys get a ton of reps, and they get a chance to learn and grow and build some depth for you,” he said. “Sometimes it’s positive, because as we move in the new guys that we get, those guys are going to need reps, too. Some of these reps are going to have to stick and some of these young guys are getting more reps now than they would in the fall and hopefully you are building depth going through that.”
When it came time to discuss the younger players that had caught the attention of the Spartan defensive coordinator, a few names were mentioned. Coach Hazelton praised efforts so far of redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Maverick Hansen, redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay, junior transfer cornerback Kendell Brooks, and sophomore safety Darius Snow.
But, among the younger players the name that seemed to come up the most during the Zoom call was sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski, who mostly played on special teams in 2020, but did take 48 snaps at defensive end. Hazelton said that Pietrowski’s consistent effort and tempo has turned some heads.
“He goes hard all of the time, and the guys upfront respect that guy for what he does,” Hazelton said about Pietrowski.
The loss of Antjuan Simmons will create a hole, not just due to his production, but also in the leadership that he brought to the entire team in 2020. In 2021, the leadership role on the defense will likely fall on the veteran players such as Panasiuk, Beesley, Henderson, and Michael Dowell.
Coach Hazelton mentioned that all four of those guys have natural leadership qualities that are starting to shine through as they are now begin to mentor the younger players both on the field and in the film room. As summer approaches and the coaches will not be allowed to spend as much time with the players, this type of player-level coaching is critical.
As for the linebacker position ,Coach Hazelton admits that there is no “Ray Lewis type” of leader who instantly commands the respect of everyone in the room. However the coaching staff is starting to see leadership qualities emerging from players like redshirt senior linebacker Noah Harvey, something that head coach Mel Tucker also mentioned this week.
“He is one of those guys who comes in and takes this a little bit like the military,” Hazelton said regarding Harvey. “You come in as a young dude and you say, ‘OK, I am going to learn and let the upperclassmen tell me what to do.’”
Hazelton went on to say that players with this mindset build their leadership qualities step-by-step as they “earn their stripes.” Now that Harvey is a senior, he is becoming a much louder and confident voice in the position room.
In general, the coaching staff is encouraging the entire defense to be accountable to themselves and to each other. Coach Hazelton referenced several recent occasions this spring where a player called out a teammate for a mistake on the field, regardless of the age or experience of either player. Hazelton said that this type of communication is critical and actively encouraged.
“We are trying to empower everybody to be able to say something...You don’t have to be perfect to say something,” Hazelton said. “You don’t. You just have to be willing to serve and have a willingness to get as good as you can be...The cool thing is that they are learning and growing together.”
Coach Hazleton did not go into great detail, but he did offer a few comments about the Spartans’ most recent scrimmage against the offense. Hazelton suggested that the defense was able to create a few turnovers on Tuesday morning.
“We got the ball more, which was a good thing,” said Hazelton “That is always a good things to see. It’s a zero-sum game, so the offense is probably mad about that, but we did a better job with our communication, just being able to talk through things. Our alignment was a little bit better with urgency so we could get guys aligned, talk and communicate.”
Coach Hazleton mentioned that he saw improvement from the pass rush as well, but that a few undisciplined plays, such as jumping off-sides, did cost the defense. In addition, the coaching staff made some substitution errors due to the tempo that the offense was playing with at times (which is notable by itself).
“We’re running one group on the field because we are trying to play more guys up front and we aren’t getting the guys off in time,” Hazelton said. “The offense is going fast, and we have to be ready for that.”
In general, though, Coach Hazelton’s main takeaway from the scrimmage was simple:“We’re getting better.”
The Spartans have just three practices remaining until spring ball concludes with the Spring Game on Saturday, April 24 at 2 p.m. The game will be broadcast by the Big Ten Network, and the status of the general public’s attendance is still under discussion.
Coach Hazleton’s full comments can be viewed below. Go Green!