We begin our previews for the 2023 MSU football campaign with a look at Coach Tucker’s staff. Of the ten members of the staff - 3 coordinators and 7 position coaches - eight of them were on the staff last year. That means that there is a lot of carry-over on the sidelines from a team that most feel underperformed in 2022. In this article, we are going to give a brief bio on each coach and then attempt to analyze their recent job performance, be that in East Lansing or elsewhere.
Jay Johnson - Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach
Jay played quarterback for Northern Iowa in the early 90’s. Since then, he has made the rounds in a variety of coaching roles. He started as a high school coach but quickly became a graduate assistant before moving on to becoming a position coach. He has coached just about every skill position on the offensive side of the ball. He has been an offensive coordinator at five schools, including his last two stops working under Mel Tucker. Going into his fourth year at MSU, we have seen mostly positives from Jay’s offense. Certainly the highlight was the 2021 season. It would be an easy conclusion to say that that was the result of the brilliance of Kenneth Walker’s lone season in East Lansing, but it also does not take that much more investigating to realize that that offense had so much more than a great running back. Coach Johnson has shown that he can use the talent he has at his disposal to create a diverse offensive attack complete with trick plays and different formations that will keep defenses guessing. The big question is if he can create something nearly as good as he did two years ago with a whole new set of parts. He needs to replace his QB, 2 leading WRs, 2 of his top 3 TEs, and a good deal of his running backs stable. For now, I would give Jay a passing grade for his time with MSU and have faith that he can resurrect the stale offense we saw last year. Maybe the main issues last year were the seldom-discussed injuries nagging Payton Thorne.
Chris Kapilovic - Offensive Line Coach/Assistant Head Coach
Another member of the staff who came from Colorado with Tucker, Kapilovic’s main responsibility is teaching the offensive linemen how to open up holes in the running game and how to protect the quarterback. Again, looking at that magical 2021 season, we can remember that Walker regularly had gaps to run through and all he had to do was accelerate through them. That isn’t meant to take away from Walker’s greatness in any fashion, but the fact that a few of the linemen from that season earned all-B1G honors and have made it to the NFL shows that he is doing a good job in coaching. The pass protection has been good, too; the last two seasons, MSU was among the best in the nation allowing only 1.5 and 1.6 sacks per game. Lastly, he has also proven to be a strong recruiter. This season he is bringing in a pair of 4-star recruits plus one of the top JC transfers. We should expect more fundamentally sound play from Kapilovic’s guys in 2023.
Ted Gilmore - Tight Ends Coach
Ted has been in charge of the TEs for all of Tucker’s time in East Lansing, after previously coaching the WRs at Wisconsin along with earlier stops at USC and Nebraska. If we want to pick Gilmore’s greatest achievement in his time with MSU, I would have to go with his success in helping Connor Heyward convert from RB to TE his senior season before ultimately getting drafted to the NFL. In addition to having coached in the NFL, Gilmore has seen a number of his players at the collegiate level go on to playing on Sundays. Last season, he had a three-headed monster at TE; this year, he only brings back Maliq Carr from that group, but he also has some new additions to help him fortify the position. Judging by his earlier work, I’d say he is up to the task.
Courtney Hawkins - Wide Receivers Coach
Courtney has also been with MSU as long as Tucker has been here and is one of the great WRs to ever play for MSU, something he parlayed into a nine-year NFL career. This is his first stop as a collegiate coach after leading his hometown high school team for 14 seasons. The early returns for Hawkins seem positive, as he has already seen a couple of his WRs, Nailor and Reed, make it to the next level; probably could have had a third if not for the transfer of Coleman. But now Hawkins faces perhaps his biggest challenge yet as a coach as the receivers' room has some question marks in it. Can he help elevate someone new (or even a couple of guys) to WR1 status? We know what he can do with physically gifted players, but it is to be determined what he can if those guys are not at his disposal. For now, I am giving him an incomplete, though there is optimism.
Effrem Reed - Running Backs Coach
Effrem is the youngest coach on Tucker’s staff, having only graduated college himself in 2015. He played college ball at Louisiana where Jay Johnson was his offensive coordinator. Last year, after being an offensive analyst for MSU for 2 years, he was promoted to RB coach and became a position coach for the first time. Unfortunately for him, his first year on the job was right after KW3 went pro and he was left with a considerable downgrade in talent. Last year’s leading rusher, Jalen Berger, does return, but beyond him is a mystery. Reed will need to show that he can further develop Berger as well as get some of the other guys to step up into a strong backup role before we can start giving him a passing grade. I’ll give him an incomplete too, just because he has only been at his position a year, but I don’t have as much optimism with him as I do with Coach Hawkins.
Scottie Hazelton - Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, we begin with the only defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has employed at MSU. Prior to this stop, Scottie has about a decade’s worth of experience in the DC role to go along with even more time spent coaching linebackers, including a few years with Jacksonville in the NFL. In his first 2 seasons in East Lansing, Hazelton’s defense garnered a number of all-B1G honors and has had a few players go on to the NFL. However, in his 3rd season running the defense, performance on this side of the ball took a dip. It is worth noting that this was also his first season where he also held the role of linebackers coach, so it is worth asking if this was a case of him having too much on his plate. Sure, the linebackers were arguably the best part of the defense in 2022, highlighted by the play of Cal Haladay and Jacoby Windmon. But while the LB room was excelling, the rest of the position groups were struggling. Last year, MSU was 10th in the B1G in points allowed and 13th in yards allowed. That is not going to be sustainable if Scottie wants to stick around East Lansing much longer. While Hazelton has brought in a number of 4-star recruits over the last two cycles, we have not yet seen the on-field results. This year could be make-or-break for the defensive coordinator.
Harlon Barnett - Secondary Coach
The man responsible for the most maligned position group from 2022, Coach Barnett is the member of the coaching staff with the deepest roots in East Lansing. He played for George Perles in the late 80s, including being a part of the 1988 Rose Bowl team. He served on Mark Dantonio’s staff from 2007 to 2017, the last three years of which he was co-defensive coordinator, after also being on Dantonio's staff at Cincinatti for three seasons before that. And now he is entering his fourth year on Mel Tucker’s staff, first for a season as cornerbacks coach and as the full secondary coach since. Let’s be frank, the stats have been bad and very bad under his watch. In terms of pass yards per game allowed, MSU has gone from ninth to last to next-to-last among Big Ten teams in his three years serving on the current staff. Numerically, there was a 100 yard/game improvement between last year and the year prior, but that was because the 2021 season was historically bad. Proof of that is that the 100-yard improvement only moved them up one spot in the conference rankings. His first stint as an MSU coach saw him overseeing the famous “No Fly Zone” defense that sent many players to the next level, so it is worth examining if it is a matter of talent or scheme that has caused the deterioration in performance. Admittedly, in his first two years back in East Lansing (2020 & ‘21), there was only a single four-star recruit brought in to the secondary. The 2022 cycle saw two more join the program and another one comes this year, along with several three-star players, so maybe the talent is getting better. If there is not a significant improvement in the secondary’s statistics this season, then maybe it is obvious that the issue is scheme and coaching. To this point, I have to give Barnett a failing grade in his return to MSU. He could be the first head to roll if the defense continues to struggle.
Jim Salgado - Cornerbacks Coach
In his first year in East Lansing, Coach Salgado joins the staff after 6 years with the Buffalo Bills, mostly working with their secondary. I’ll note that last year, the Bills’ defense was middle of the league in terms of pass yards allowed per game, but they led the NFL in 2021. Prior to his time coaching in the pros, he has coached at many colleges and has served as a defensive coordinator and even a special teams coordinator. It feels safe to say the knowledge is there. Also interesting is that his college major was psychology, so maybe that has come in handy for him as a coach needing to get better gameday performances from his disciples. Let’s hope he can help bring back a level of respect to MSU’s defensive backfield.
Diron Reynolds - Defensive Line Coach
The other new member of the MSU coaching staff also comes with NFL coaching experience, including a Super Bowl ring with Indianapolis, though he spent the last seven seasons coaching Stanford’s D line. His stint at Stanford saw his unit get four players drafted to the NFL, but the Cardinal were no better than 11th (out of 12) in the soon-to-be extinct Pac-12 in rush yards allowed per game in each of the past three seasons. Before Stanford, he was at Oklahoma for one year, and they went to the playoff that year. It is hard to grade his recruiting in East Lansing so far; all the defensive linemen coming in this season signed before Diron was hired, and the 2024 cycle still does not have any signees among this position group. Hopefully that changes before this class is complete and hopefully he can get better performances against the run than he was getting recently at Stanford.
Ross Els - Special Teams Coordinator
I’ll keep this short. Good: Bryce Barringer. Bad: Whoever was kicking FGs last year. There will be all new special teams players in 2023, so while the punting can be expected to come down a bit, we really need to see an improvement from the 50% FG rate we saw last year (on only 12 attempts). Find us a good kicker, Ross.
That is it for the breakdown of the coaching staff. We will look more at Head Coach Tucker as the season gets closer.
One last note, kind of tied to coaching, I think we need to give you, our much-appreciated readers and commentors a few pieces of coaching. Okay, TOC family, we want you all to read the articles and comment and enjoy this web page. Part of enjoying the page is having respect for the other commenters. So I am asking all of you (and yes I am just asking; we won’t be policing this) to be a bit more civil out there. The comments section is not a competition and we are not giving out awards for best comments. You don’t need to be the most argumentative or call people “troll” more than anyone else. If there is someone who regularly comments that you have a problem with, you have the ability to hit the “ignore” button on them, or more simply, you can just ignore them. Conversely, we ask you all to come in, read the article (or not), make your comment or perhaps reply to someone else’s comment, and then keep it moving. But making the same reply repeatedly to several comments or having 30 back and forth replies between two or three of you where you are just attacking one another's’ optimism or pessimism does not make TOC better and it is not enjoyable for the other people going through the comments section.
We are all here, hopefully, because we are fans of MSU. You are free to express than fandom anyway you choose so long as it does not involve attacks on other people here. Let’s keep it friendly please.
26 DAYS UNTIL KICKOFF!