Michigan State Football’s offseason has had some unexpected changes. After a season where fans repeatedly called for top coordinators to be replaced, the coaching and staff changes have largely related to recruiting. For a team, and a coach, that have thrived off of a resurgent national profile and recruiting optimism over the past three years, this is strange to say the least.
Coach Mel Tucker has brought energy, enthusiasm and excitement to Michigan State’s football team. After a creeping sense of despondency and complacency under the final years of Mark Dantonio (fair or not), Tucker’s era has come across as the exact opposite. Particularly in recruiting, Tucker has appeared tireless.
The recruiting based “Tuck Comin” phrase is as synonymous with this program as “keep chopping” or #ChopLife.
Coming out of the highs of the 2021 season, Tucker rode a national wave of adoration to barnstorming across the country for recruits. On paper, the results have led to back-to-back top 25 recruiting classes, including a 2023 class with more four star commitments than at any point in recent memory.
From the outside looking in, it feels like recruiting is what Tucker, and his team, are good at. And yet, the last month has seen the departure of a high profile assistant coach known for his recruiting and the departure of the administrative head, and deputy head, of the recruiting (“personnel management”) department.
What does this mean? First, let’s look at the departures.
Assistant Coach and Pass Rush Training Specialist Brandon Jordan
Brandon Jordan came to MSU as an “out of the box” option. The accomplished pass rush training specialist had made his name working with top tier NFL talent as well as some incredible high school and college athletes. His move to work in-house at Michigan State caught many by surprise.
Jordan immediately became a force for MSU on the recruiting trail. The Spartans top two recruits for 2023 are defensive lineman. A third defensive lineman recruit is in the team’s top five. These recruits were brought in by Jordan with clear help from defensive line coach Marco Coleman.
Now, both coaches are gone.
The departures of Jordan and Coleman are a blow to the Spartans recruiting efforts - essentially stopping all speculation that any additional defensive lineman would join the 2023 class, and raising serious concerns about any recruiting momentum for the 2024 season at the position.
On paper these departures do have some external logic (read: not “MSU is in a crisis type” reasons). Jordan has built a unique path to his acclaim. Going in-house with the Seattle Seahawks may simply be the next step in his career. In other words, the opportunity may be the bigger draw than the desire to leave Michigan State. For Coleman, it appears the reasoning may be more personal, with a desire to move back to Georgia (NOTE: to be clear, I do NOT have insider knowledge on this decision).
General Manager Saeed Khalif and the Recruiting Department Leadership Change
The Spartans have chosen not to renew the contract of General manager Saeed Khalif, nor his top deputy, Recruiting Operations Coordinator Jensen Gebhardt.These two represent the administrative leadership of the Football team’s recruiting department. These are the types of individuals team’s rely on heavily but fans often are less aware of their work.
First reported in 247’s Spartan Tailgate (well done author Corey Robinson), the formal word was largely this was simply a time for change. 247 goes a bit deeper into the speculation around why the change was made:
The 2023 recruiting class finished as the nation’s 22nd-ranked class, which had the most four-stars that MSU has signed in years. However, many people inside the program and who follow it closely felt that the class could have been even better if they handled the board differently… Where the problems arguably came from is the lack of accurate understanding of where MSU sat [with] some of those recruitments following [official] visits, and then also compounding that mistake by not having enough suitable back-up plans in that 250-600 ranking range.
Beyond the concerns about Khalif’s handling of the recruitment process, 247 also brought in this interesting tidbit about potential interdepartmental friction:
Another thing that raised some eyebrows was when a large chunk of the Michigan State creative team all made moves to go to other college football programs around the same time. While it is extremely common for turnover in those positions and it wasn’t a drastically consequential blow, it was not a coincidence that so many of them left at once, as their dynamic with the recruiting department was a primary source of frustration.
So what does this all mean?
Functionally, this means Michigan State has a lot of work to do - both with individual recruits and the team’s recruiting system.
The team will need to work to keep current commitments on the defensive line happy. A key will be demonstrating to the current and new Spartans, as well as the 2024 group of potential Spartans, that the coaching staff will continue to prepare them for the type of success Brandon Jordan seemed to promise them.
In terms of operations and strategy, Mel Tucker has announced a nationwide search to replace Khalif. While fans will naturally focus on big name position coaches and coordinators, finding the right administrative head to make a successful path through a wildly complex nationwide recruiting environment is key to the team’s future.
Beyond the functional changes, a real question is what does this mean for Coach Tucker’s reputation as a top tier recruiter? This may be simply a tempest-in-a-teapot type situation (i.e. not that big of a deal) or it could be a sign that the cornerstone of Mel Tucker’s presence at MSU - recruiting - has some potential cracks.
For a coach getting over 9-million dollars a year for an on-field product that has had one shockingly good season (in Kenneth Walker III we still trust), and two “building” years that resulted in losing seasons, the optimism brought about through perceived recruiting prowess is very important.
Watching how Tucker puts together a revamped recruiting system will be a big indicator of his future success.