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How Mel Tucker rebuilt Michigan State’s defense through the transfer portal

Tucker and his staff identified team needs, and used the transfer portal to bolster those positions and transform the overall roster. The defense, particularly in the back seven with the linebackers and defensive backs, could see the most immediate impact.

Michigan State Spring Game Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The 2020 fall roster for the Michigan State Spartans is almost unrecognizable compared to the roster MSU will have in the fall of 2021. Head coach Mel Tucker and his staff have had a busy offseason in the transfer portal, with 27 players from last year’s team entering the portal with the intention of leaving the program (so far), and with 18 additions coming into the program from other schools (15 scholarship players and three preferred walk-ons).

There were also three players who left for the NFL Draft in Naquan Jones, Shakur Brown and Antjuan Simmons (although none were drafted), and a few players who did not want to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and chose to move on from the program. Then, of course, there is a whole recruiting class coming in for the 2021 season. All in all, this team looks significantly different than its 2020 version.

Michigan State added several mid-year additions in quarterback Anthony Russo (Temple transfer), running back Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest transfer), defensive end Drew Jordan (Duke transfer), offensive tackle Jarrett Horst (Arkansas State transfer), cornerback Kendell Brooks (North Greenville, Division II transfer) and preferred walk-on cornerback Spencer Rowland (Wheaton College, Division III transfer). Additionally, four true freshmen from the 2021 class — quarterback Hamp Fay, offensive lineman Ethan Boyd, tight end Kameron Allen and safety Michael Gravely Jr. came to East Lansing as early enrollees.

More players joined the program this past weekend, and the final wave of true freshmen will come later this summer. Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News tweeted out the list of newcomers, which was also later confirmed by The Only Colors, and included 11 transfer additions and three true freshman. A notable player missing from the list is linebacker Itayvion “Tank” Brown (Minnesota transfer), but it doesn’t seem to be a big issue as Brown indicated on social media that he was heading to East Lansing this weekend, and he is still expected to join the team.

Update: Michigan State athletics has confirmed to The Only Colors that Brown has now been officially enrolled. That means all of the transfer additions from the portal are now currently in East Lansing.

Those new additions to the Michigan State program include:

  • Samih Beydoun, preferred walk-on linebacker (Army Prep transfer)
  • Itayvion “Tank” Brown, linebacker (Minnesota transferred as of Wednesday, May 19)
  • Maliq Carr, wide receiver/tight end (Purdue transfer)
  • Quavaris Crouch, linebacker (Tennessee transfer)
  • Khary Crump, cornerback (Arizona transfer)
  • Christian Fitzpatrick, wide receiver (Louisville transfer)
  • Harold Joiner, running back (Auburn transfer)
  • Chester Kimbrough, cornerback (Florida transfer)
  • Marqui Lowery Jr., cornerback (Louisville transfer)
  • Ben VanSumeren, linebacker (Michigan transfer)
  • Powers Warren, tight end (Mississippi State transfer)
  • Ronald Williams Jr., cornerback (Alabama transfer)
  • Charles Brantley, cornerback (true freshman from Florida)
  • AJ Kirk, safety (true freshman from Ohio)
  • Kevin Wigenton, offensive guard (true freshman from New Jersey)

While plenty of the transfer additions for Michigan State are on the offensive side of the ball, and players like Anthony Russo, Jarrett Horst and Kenneth Walker III have a chance to earn an immediate role and win a starting spot, it’s the defense — particularly the back seven (defensive backs and linebackers) — that could make the most immediate impact.

The defensive backfield was an area of concern for the Spartans heading into the 2021 season. Tre Person, one of last year’s starting safeties, is no longer with the team after playing his senior season, while MSU also lost four defensive backs to the transfer portal. Kalon Gervin (redshirt junior), Xavier Henderson (senior), Michael Dowell (redshirt junior) and Angelo Grose (sophomore) are the only returning players in that group who saw significant playing time last year. While those four could make a formidable starting unit, the returning depth is questionable. Michigan State also runs a base 4-2-5 defense, with five defensive backs on the field most of the time, so another starting spot is available in the secondary.

So, as expected Tucker and his staff hit the transfer portal hard, adding six new defensive backs — Kendell Brooks, Spencer Rowland, Chester Kimbrough, Marqui Lowery Jr., Khary Crump and Ronald Williams Jr. MSU also adds four freshmen defensive backs, including Michael Gravely Jr. who enrolled in January, and Charles Brantley and AJ Kirk, who enrolled this week (Antoine Booth will join the program later this summer). The Spartans also cut ties with another 2021 cornerback signee, Steffan Johnson, who was arrested and charged with extortion for directing or promoting sexual performance by a child. So, the defensive backs room will have a lot of fresh bodies and new competition this summer.

Of that transfer group, Rowland and Brooks were the only mid-year additions at the defensive back position, and were obviously the only two players in the secondary who Tucker (a former defensive backs coach himself) and the defensive coaching staff have been able to evaluate so far. Interestingly, both players came from a lower level of competition (Brooks from Division II and Rowland from Division III). Following the spring game, I asked Coach Tucker what he saw from those two players in particular, and he had this to say:

“I’ll tell you what, those guys came in, and they really fit in well with our football team,” Tucker said immediately after the spring game on April 24. “They have that mindset, that mental disposition toward competing, practicing hard. They’re real serious about what they’re doing, they take in all the information, and they’e gotten better and better as we’ve gone (through spring). I’m really glad they’re on our team. They’re gonna be able to help us and they’re gonna have roles on our team that are just really gonna help us overall.”

Following up, I also asked about the outlook for the secondary overall moving froward, which will look significantly different in the summer and fall compared to the spring. Tucker knows it was a thin group during spring practice, but also knows the new additions are going to help solidify the returning talent, and thinks it’s a promising group.

“The secondary is a group where you got Xavier Henderson, Michael Dowell, Angelo Grose, guys that have been out there before, you know (Kalon Gervin) is a guy that’s played,” Tucker said. “Then we’re gonna add some guys in May and June. I feel good about the group of guys that we will have to be able to move throughout the summer and go into fall camp. I feel like we’ll be able to play tight coverage, do a good job in zone, make plays on the ball. This summer’s gonna be very important for this entire unit, for us to come together, and move into fall camp with the confidence that we need to get something done back there.”

As for the linebackers, that position group was just as dire entering the 2021 season, as the Spartans lost Simmons as he went on to pursue his NFL dreams, and also lost four linebackers to the transfer portal. The only players returning from the 2020 team who have any meaningful playing time under their belts are redshirt senior Noah Harvey and redshirt junior Chase Kline. As such, Tucker and the Michigan State staff put a heavy emphasis on the linebacker position in the transfer portal.

Michigan State added transfers at the position in Ben VanSumeren, Itayvion “Tank” Brown, Quavaris Crouch and Samih Beydoun (preferred walk-on). The Spartans also signed Ma’a Gaoteote, a four-star outside linebacker prospect from Bishop Gorman High School (Las Vegas) who flipped his longtime commitment from USC, and is the highest-rated signee in MSU’s 2021 class. Additionally, three-star prospect Carson Casteel signed with the Spartans. So the problem of having a thin linebackers room seems to have been fixed, and in a 4-2-5 scheme (two linebackers on the field at a time in most cases), there should be plenty of players able to rotate into the game and play a role.

The defensive line wasn’t addressed heavily in the transfer portal, but Duke graduate transfer Drew Jordan will make an immediate impact at defensive end, rotating in with fellow seniors Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley, as well as many others. Expect the Michigan State pass rush to be much improved this season after the Spartans only recorded 12 sacks in seven games last season, ranking 10th in the Big Ten.

Defensively, several of the new transfer additions have an opportunity to find an immediate role and make an instant impact. In fact, Tucker expects that to be the case, especially in the back seven of the unit with the linebackers and defensive backs. Here is what Tucker recently had to say about the defense on the 247Sports College Football Daily podcast:

“The players that are here have a better understanding of our scheme and where they fit and where their help is. It’s one thing to know your assignment, but it takes a little bit more to know what your teammates need to do around you. So I think that really helps bring perspective and actually just raises the level of competency on your entire defense when more people have a much better understanding of what the scheme entails, what their job is, and where they fit. I do believe that our newcomers, guys that will be joining our team this summer in May here, whether they’re high school players or transfers, I think those newcomers will make a significant impact on our defense, especially in the defensive backfield and also at the linebacker positions. We had a very good spring. It was productive. I felt like we’ve improved in our technique and fundamentals and our understanding what we’re doing, but not just what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it, why it’s important to do things a certain way. This summer, we’re poised to really grow and add these new players to our culture and indoctrinate them to our team so we can move forward into our fall camp with a strong, healthy, football team on offense, defense and special teams.”

There has been significant change in the Michigan State roster year-over-year. Tucker and the MSU staff recognized the weaknesses of the team and upgraded those areas to the best of their ability. He continues to build the roster in his vision and implement the culture he wants for the program. How quickly the positive results come — keeping in mind that a full rebuild and complete roster transformation takes time to develop — remains to be seen, but the players and the coaches on the team expect to win now, and there is no denying the roster has been improved, at least on paper.