Michigan State football head coach Mel Tucker is still working on bringing a national title to East Lansing. His mantra at Big Ten Media Days this offseason: “Why not us?”
Unlike some other coaches that spoke on the second day of the event in Indianapolis, Tucker’s opening statement was quite brief. In the 15-minute televised session, he said the following:
“We have shifted our culture at Michigan State. It’s a culture that is rooted in a relentless mindset in everything we do. Culture is how we live and behave every single day. It’s a culture of accountability, attention to detail, sense of urgency, connection, being authentic, being real, and good old-fashioned hard work. You roll your sleeves up and figure out a way to get the job done.”
He finished his opening statement by saying, “Our goal is to finish first, and we need to bring a championship to East Lansing. So that’s what this is all about.”
So a championship, huh? You heard Tucker correctly.
Tucker continued that mindset all throughout his Media Days press conferences. At his hour-long session with the media, Tucker emphasized that the goal is to “win every game on our schedule.” Yes, that obviously includes Michigan. It also includes Ohio State and the College Football Playoff.
In Tucker’s second season, his Spartans finished 11-2 and won the Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh. For Michigan State, that isn’t good enough.
“I just think that there’s a better understanding of what our standards are,” Tucker said of the team, despite feeling good about the winning season. “Within our program, they know what works, they know what doesn’t work. There’s a better understanding, a broader awareness, of what it takes to compete at a high level in this conference.
“We’re further ahead as a program than we were a year ago, in every facet, including strength and conditioning. Our overall culture is really strengthening, we’re cementing it as opposed to building it.”
Perhaps most intriguing was when Tucker started talking heavily on a national championship in East Lansing.
“Obviously, our goal is to win every game on our schedule and to finish first,” Tucker said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s not necessarily looking at the record and saying, ‘How much further can you go?’ I don’t believe in self-imposed limitations, you know? Why not us?”
Tucker building through recruiting and the transfer portal
Throughout Media Days, Tucker said building a college program is a lot like building a team in the National Football League. Of course, Tucker was an assistant coach in the NFL for several years with the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears.
When Tucker took over at Michigan State in 2020, players weren’t sure who would play. Tucker ensured “We play the best players.”
“We can’t worry about someone being offended if they’re asked to compete to get on the field,” Tucker said. “This is a production deal for players and coaches, and that’s how life is. No one’s going to give you anything, we can’t have a sense of entitlement in our program. When I took the job in February of 2020, I showed up and had a team meeting and said, ‘Listen, everyone has a clean slate here. Everyone is going to get a fair shot. We’re going to play the best players. OK, so I didn’t recruit any of you, but you’re all my guys now.’”
He likened the new NCAA transfer portal rules to that of NFL free agency. However, bringing in high school recruits is more like the NFL Draft. That’s how most teams build their rosters. Look forward to more players looking at Michigan State in the portal, assuming it’s a good fit. But Tucker ensured that recruiting is the only way that MSU is going to close the gap on elite teams, such as Ohio State and Alabama.
A last-ranked pass defense
MSU’s pass defense was also a topic of heavy discussion. At the beginning of his session, Tucker said “It can’t get any worse.”
Opponents threw the ball 579 times (most in FBS), completing 380 of those passes (also most in FBS) for 4,222 passing yards and 27 touchdowns. MSU allowed 324.8 passing yards per game (ranking dead last in FBS). The Spartans’ passing yards were most allowed by any FBS team since Arizona State and Pittsburgh in 2016.
Tucker wasn’t so happy about those numbers: “We were last. Dead-ass last. OK, that is going to change.
“We’ve added some really good coaches,” Tucker added. “Marco Coleman, he was an elite pass rusher in his own right, first-round pick, Rookie of the Year; he does a really good job with the pass rush. Then we have Brandon Jordan, who was arguably the best pass rush guy in the country, college and pro. He’s trained over 200 NFL players now. Coach (Harlon) Barnett does a great job with the secondary, and I’m going to fill in and help out with the corners this year. I think that’s only gonna help our team.”
MSU’s biggest weakness last season was defending the pass. The only teams able to defeat Michigan State — Purdue and Ohio State — both had very strong air attacks.
“We have a very high standard of performance,” Tucker said. “We have decided as a program to attack that standard every single day.”
Payton Thorne’s leadership, NIL and other remarks
Expected to step it up this season is Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne, who is coming off of a terrific season where he threw for 3,233 yards and set a program-record 27 touchdowns.
In Tucker’s session, he said Thorne has made strides this offseason, especially in leading the offense.
“He’s gotten out of his comfort zone,” Tucker said. “(Thorne) has really worked hard to be an extension of the coaching staff...I don’t believe there’s anyone that will out-compete him on our team.
Even in player interviews, safety Xavier Henderson and wide receiver Jayden Reed were adamant about how much Thorne has improved as a leader.
Besides Thorne, Henderson and Reed returning, Tucker said, “You’re not going to find a guy like Ken Walker in the portal every year.” He emphasized holding the team to high standards and that an 11-2 season just doesn’t cut it.
As for name, image and likeness (NIL) for college athletes, Tucker is all-in.
“I’m all for NIL,” Tucker said. “I want players to make what they can make, and we want to help them build their brands. That’s our philosophy at Michigan State. I haven’t really seen the downside yet.”
Michigan State will open the season by playing Western Michigan on Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Non-conference opponents include the Broncos, Akron Zips and a road game at the Washington Huskies. MSU’s first Big Ten game is on Sept. 24 against Minnesota in East Lansing. Other notable games include an Oct. 8 home contest against Ohio State and a road game against Michigan on Oct. 29.