During Big Ten Media Days last week in Indianapolis, members of the media had several opportunities to talk to Michigan State University head football coach Mel Tucker for the first time in person. But, Coach Tucker was not the only Spartan at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday. Tucker was joined by junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor, senior safety Xavier Henderson and sixth-year graduate student and defensive end Drew Beesley.
As a part of the afternoon podium interviews, each player was stationed in their own booth-of-sorts on main floor of the stadium. This gave the media a chance to talk to each player in almost a one-on-one setting. I even had a chance to chat with Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., as he was just sitting there by himself for several minutes.
During the one hour session, MSU’s players gave their thoughts on several key topics impacting the team and the broader college football landscape.
Newcomers and Competition
When Tucker spoke to the media during his initial press conference, and then in the podium session round table, a major topic of discussion was the large number new faces that have joined the Michigan State roster since last fall. Naturally, each player was also asked about the competition for spots in the playing group and how the newcomers were being received.
Over the last year, Tucker introduced the phrase, “Compete to play, compete to stay,” to Spartan Nation. When Beesley was asked about the buy-in from the locker room of this philosophy, he offered the following:
“What (Coach Tucker) means by that is he just wants everyone to give their best effort,” Beesley said. “If you’re gonna come to this program and not give your best effort, he doesn’t want you. He wants guys who want to compete and want to win. He knows what it takes to win.”
As for the integration of the new faces, by all accounts the transition has been a smooth one. Nailor made that point clear, saying, “Everybody’s getting along, for sure. Everybody is interacting with each other. It’s a big family.”
Beesley agreed, saying “All we ever want is success for each other and for the team. Regardless, we’re all here to help each other. It’s really a brotherhood...We’ve got pretty much our entire team here on campus. I feel like in the two months that we’ve had together this summer, we gel together very well, and I feel like our chemistry is through the roof. Our guys are just excited to get to camp and to get ready for the season.”
If nothing else, Beesley realizes the need for quality depth in the modern era of quick tempo football.
“To play an entire game playing defensive end and to play 10 plays in a row, you know, you just couldn’t do it,” Beesley said. “You’ve got to have some good subs. And I feel like we got a lot of depth.”
Leadership and Rising Stars
All three players were asked to comment on the development of some of their teammates over the summer, both in terms of of skill and of leadership.
When Henderson was asked about some of the budding leaders on the team, the first player that he named was incoming freshman safety A.J. Kirk.
“He can go and he is going to work as hard as me,” Henderson said about Kirk.
Henderson next mentioned Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker: “He is definitely pushing the offense. How hard he works just inspires you to work harder yourself.”
As for young players that we might see on the field this fall, Henderson first mentioned freshman cornerback Chuck Brantley. “I think Chuck could do it,” Henderson said.
Henderson also has faith that Kirk will see the field at least on special teams. He then mentioned a freshman defensive lineman, “Maybe big Derrick Harmon...He’s a big boy and hopefully he can get some snaps in at d-tackle.”
When Beesley was asked a similar question, he first mentioned sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski as a young guy who is very vocal, improving his football IQ, and putting in the work in the weight room. Beesley also mentioned redshirt freshman defensive end Avery Dunn as a player who is likely to see the field in 2021.
“He’s a special talent. He’s going to live up to expectations, for sure,” Beesley said about Dunn.
Beesley also had a lot of positive things to say about Duke graduate transfer defensive end (and Beesley’s summer lifting partner) Drew Jordan.
“(Jordan) brings a lot to the table,” Beesley said. “He’s got a unique skill set. He’s a very, very big dude. He’s very fast and athletic, and his football IQ is through the roof. That dude likes to compete. I’m excited to play with him this season. He’s gonna help us to win games, for sure.”
Beesley was also asked for his thoughts on the Spartans’ offensive line and their progress in the offseason.
“Kevin Jarvis is the main man of the that group, and J.D. Duplain is taking the next steps, too,” Beesley said about the offensive line. “He is starting to become a vocal leader and he is a stud in the weight room.”
Beesley then added that the offensive line as a group “Have really gelled together as a unit and are taking the next step mentally.”
“Your Body is Your Business”
Even though this is the second year of the Coach Mel Tucker era, it was the first time that the media had a chance to delve into some of the differences between the approach of the previous staff and the current one.
Nailor described it as follows: “Biggest thing would be intensity. Just the overall feel of the building. Like once you’re in there, you can just you can just feel the vibe that is not real laid back. Everybody’s really focused on their job and they want us to be better.”
A big part of this increase in intensity comes from the new strength and conditioning staff, led by Coach Jason Novak. Beesley described it as “Their goal was to make it so hard that they can make the game look easy. And I feel like they did that a lot. They put our feet to the fire, and they challenged us mentally and physically.”
But perhaps a bigger change was in the team’s approach to nutrition. All three players and Coach Tucker spoke in glowing terms about the work of Amber Rinestine, who joined the staff in January 2021 as the head football performance dietitian. Coach Tucker described the current philosophy as “Your body is your business.”
Nailor said, “(Rinestine) sat down with everybody on the team and just just went through a plan for everybody...it’s just wonderful having Amber in the building.”
Henderson agreed. “(Rinestine’s) amazing. She’s been great. It’s just a privilege. I feel like the most spoiled dude in the world.”
All three players mentioned how Rinestine has completely reshaped the way that they eat, both in the number of meals and snacks and in the healthy options that are provided.
Based on the recently released fall roster, it seems to be paying off. Several players showed significant weight gains or losses. For example, junior defensive tackle Dashaun Mallory was listed at 345 pounds in 2020 and 300 pounds during the spring. In the most recent roster, he has trimmed down to 285 pounds. Time will only tell what impact the new strength and conditioning and nutrition regiments will have on the performance on the field.
Odds and Ends
Beesley has already earned an economics degree from Michigan State, but choose to return to MSU for a sixth year. During the individual podium session, Beesley was asked to reflect upon his decision to return:
“I kind of asked myself, ‘Would I regret leaving Michigan State if I just decided to leave?,’” Beesley said. “But, I just truly felt like Coach Tucker was going to do something really special with this program. I feel like I didn’t want to miss out on that. So that was one factor.
“With it being a normal year, Spartan Nation is going to be in there, and my family is going to be able to come to the games,” Beesley added. “For them to be there at those games means a whole lot to me...it’s gonna be electric. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. I mean, we had about 6,000 (people) at the spring game in March. It was just amazing to hear those ‘Go Green, Go White’ chants in there. I’m just excited for that again.”
The topic of name, image and likeness (NIL) was one of the main discussion points among the coaches in attendance in Indianapolis, but to the Michigan State players, it did not seem to be at the forefront of their minds. Perhaps Nailor summed it up best as he said, “I’m just focused on school and ball right now.”
On the topic of the proposed 12-team playoff, the players generally seemed excited about it, despite the fact that it will not go into effect until 2025, well after they will have exhausted their eligibility. That said, both Henderson and Beesley independently mentioned that an eight-team playoff was likely a better number than 12. As it so happens, I agree with them.
That said, when I asked Henderson about the potential loss of the traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 Rose Bowl matchup in the 12-team proposal, he said, “I didn’t even know that that was a thing, honestly, until maybe two years ago...so I don’t think kids my age care.” That made this 40-something, old school Big Ten fan a bit sad.
But, I was cheered up a bit in the final minutes of the session when Beesley came over to Henderson’s booth to ask him an interview question. He asked, “Of all of the players in the defensive end room, who is the most handsome?” After some consideration, Henderson answered, “Jack Camper?”
Nailor and Henderson also had some fun together.
Xavier Henderson answering teammate Jalen Nailor. pic.twitter.com/YgiW9DzNOv— Matt Wenzel (@mwenzel2) July 23, 2021
The Spartans are scheduled to open the 2021 season on the evening of Friday, Sept. 3 in Evanston, Illinois against the Northwestern Wildcats. Stay tuned to the Only Colors for continuing coverage of the Michigan State football program. Go Green.