The 2022 Big Ten Football Media Days event provided the opportunity for media to interview several members of the Michigan State football program. The day began with head coach Mel Tucker’s televised press conference. Coach Tucker then got to spend an hour speaking more in depth at his podium session.
In addition, three of the Spartans’ key players for the 2022 season also traveled to Indianapolis for the event, and each also got to spend an hour talking to the media during their own podium sessions. Redshirt junior and starting quarterback Payton Thorne, redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed and fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson gave their thoughts about fighting complacency, areas of improvement in 2022 and some new names to watch out for this fall.
“Nobody cares what you did last year”
Entering the 2021 season, the Spartans were only expected to win four or five games, according to numerous pundits. But Michigan State wound up winning 11 total games, including, a Peach Bowl win in a New Year’s Six bowl game over Pittsburgh. With such an impressive performance last year, it is natural to wonder if the Spartans feel like they have already arrived.
Based on the statements from Tucker and his players, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Tucker addressed the issue of complacency right off the bat in his opening press conference. “For us, (2021) was just really a step in the right direction,” Tucker said. “We did some good things, but nobody cares what you did last year. We certainly don’t.”
Tucker’s players echoed this same sentiment.
“Like Coach (Tucker) said, 11-2 last year doesn’t put any wins in the win column this year,” Thorne said. “We’re not carrying any over. We’re zero and zero right now.”
The players are working as hard as ever in an attempt to take the MSU program to the next level.
“We’re out working, lifting and running, doing all that,” Henderson said. “None of that’s for 11-2 in 2021. We are working for 2022.”
Henderson is certainly feeling the pressure to achieve as much as he can in his fifth and final year in East Lansing. He even questioned whether he himself was overconfident at times last year.
“When you got something that you’re really passionate about, and you put so much work in and you think you’re working hard, it’s just a personal question for yourself,” Henderson said. “‘Am I working hard enough?’ Fear is not a bad thing because it drives me a little bit.
“I wasn’t where I wanted to be or where I knew I could be (after last year),” Henderson continued. “So I have been working my butt off this year. I’ve been working my butt off to help other guys do better this summer. I’m excited. I’m confident, but I’m also scared. I’m still working and I am going to keep working throughout the season.”
Where does this motivation and healthly dose of fear come from? It comes from the top down.
“I don’t know anybody who wants to win as bad as (Coach Tucker) does, honestly,” Henderson told the media. “He would sleep in his office during the season for periods of time just trying to figure out ways to get better.
“He wants to win so bad that he’s not letting us relax,” Henderson continued. “He’s making sure we’re not letting our teammates relax because he wants it to be a player-led team more than a coach-led team so. So we’re taking it from there.
“We’re working to be here (Indianapolis) at the end of the football season,” Henderson added later. “We’re working to be at the Big Ten Championship because we know we can. We are working toward the playoffs because we can do it. So we’re working how a playoff team should work. Coach Tucker has been on playoff teams, so he’s got the recipe.”
All three players emphasized the current level of intensity in the program right now. They used words such as “business-like” and “intense,” and they talked about how Tucker runs his program like the CEO of an NFL team. Reed explained it as follows.
“Our practices are harder than our games in my opinion,” he said. “Even scouts come in and tell Coach Tucker and all the other coaches ‘We’ve never seen any other program practice like you guys.’
“It’s true,” Reed continued. “Our practices are really hard. That’s how we were able to perform at a very high level when it’s crunch time. That’s helped us out a lot for sure.”
Improving the pass defense
If the Spartans are to continue to build on the success of 2021, one area of improvement is clearly the pass defense. Tucker did not shy away from the shortcomings of that phase of the game.
“We were last in the country last year,” Tucker said. “Dead-ass last. Now that’s going to change.”
Other than just hard work, how do the Spartans expect to slow their opponent’s passing attacks in 2022? Henderson provided a few insights. First of all, he expects another year of experience playing under defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton will be helpful.
“We had so many dudes last year like Ronald (Williams), Chester (Kimbrough), Marqui (Lowery), Chuck (Brantley), all kinds of dudes that hadn’t been used to playing under Coach Hazleton,” Henderson said. “Dudes are getting more comfortable with our system so we got a better chance of attacking our opponents instead of worrying about what we’re trying to do.
“We had corners that played really good individual games,” Henderson continued, “We just have to get dudes to put it all together and get confident.”
Experience, however, is likely not going to be enough to provide the improvement that MSU fans expect. Fortunately, Henderson also expects to see improvement due to some new faces and some new approaches.
“We’ve got some new guys,” Henderson said. “We’ve got a pass-rush specialist on the (defensive) line so that will give QBs back there less time to throw, and we’ve got some different things schematically that we are putting in.
“But probably the biggest thing is the chip on our shoulder heading into season,” Henderson added later. “We’re hungry. We’re excited. We’re pretty tired of hearing this and that about the defense. You signed up for college football, so you put your big boy pants on and go to work.”
New faces in East Lansing
One of the unique aspects of college football is the annual emergence of new players either from the high school ranks, the bottom of the depth chart, or (increasingly) the transfer portal who make an unexpected and positive impact on the team each year.
During last year’s Media Days, Henderson was talking up a little-known Wake Forest transfer running back named Kenneth Walker III and a skinny freshman cornerback named Charles Brantley. Three months later, both players (among other things) were instrumental in the Spartans’ upset of the Michigan Wolverines.
When the three players were asked about new faces to watch for in 2022, a few different players were mentioned, but one name was mentioned over and over again.
“Keon Coleman,” Reed said about the fellow wide receiver. “He’s going to be a guy this year for sure.”
“Anytime Payton wants to throw the football around, Keon’s out there ready to run routes,” Henderson added. “I have been out there trying to work on my man-technique and Keon is always ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to do something?’”
Coleman is a rising sophomore who caught just seven balls for 50 total yards last year, but look for that production to be drastically improved in 2022.
As for other players to watch for:
“Brandon Wright on defense,” Henderson said. “He’s been looking really good on the edge. He had a good bowl game versus Pitt last year. I’ve been impressed with him so far. Another guy on defense is Jacoby Windmon at linebacker. Those are some dudes who I think will have a good year.”
Reed had some positive things to say about some of the younger members of the wide receiver room.
“Germie Bernard, Tyrell Henry and Antonio Gates (Jr.),” Reed said about players to watch out for. “All the young guys, man, they got something to them. You can look at each and every one of them and be like, ‘Oh, man, that guy’s going to be great.’”
When Thorne was asked to comment on some newcomers, he complimented a notable transfer from the SEC.
“We added a corner, Ameer Speed, from Georgia,” Thorne said. “He’s a very long corner, very strong and very fast. So he’s going to help us for sure.”
With the month of July coming to a close, August and the start of training camp are right around the corner. The Spartan football team is scheduled to begin fall camp on Aug. 3.
The 2022 version of the Michigan State Spartans will then take the field for the first time on Friday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. in Spartan Stadium against the Western Michigan Broncos. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Football season is almost here again. Stay tuned to The Only Colors for continuing coverage of fall camp, all the way up to kickoff and beyond.