Scottie Hazelton was named Mel Tucker’s defensive coordinator at the end of February of this year, well before we knew what disaster was about to take place. Former head coach Mark Dantonio had stepped away from the program at an inopportune time to assemble a staff and now tragedy has befallen the world in the form of the COVID-19 crisis.
So how do you start life in a new job when you are forced to be home during the get-to-know-you phase of that job?
For Hazelton and the MSU staff, they are doing a lot of the same things we are with Zoom meetings and staying home. Hazelton before coming to Michigan State was the defensive coordinator in Manhattan, Kansas for the Kansas State Wildcats and he still remains out west in Kansas for the time being until the country overcomes COVID-19. As for now, Hazelton is simply trying to get to know the players and build relationships that can help begin the learning process.
“You’re just getting to know them and I think for us as a defense that is as valuable as anything, just building a relationship to where when I say a joke about somebody in a meeting and it makes sense.” Hazelton said. “Hopefully when this calms down, you can start to have them over at your house and have them get to know your family, because I think it is important for them to see where you come from and you can start to figure out where they come from.”
In addition to using these meetings, the staff is using this opportunity to go over film and schemes for the defense.
“We’ve done unit meetings where we’ve had 56 people on the same video and that is more overview of ‘Hey, here’s the defense we're going to solve today, here’s why we call it, here’s the weaknesses to it," Hazelton said. “ ... Some of those end up being like phase one OTA’s in the NFL, where we can’t go on the field yet, but you can install scheme, talk techniques and talk what assignments are."
A lot of his effort has gone into getting to know some of the leaders, so they can streamline the messages he wants to teach some of the underclassmen.
“You try to get to know some of those guys first because a lot of the time, they’ll do some of that job for you,” Hazelton said. “If you get eight guys that you start to build a good relationship with, they’re going to affect forty. Then you can say now we have a chance to get everyone going in the right direction."
Another thing that has helped for Hazleton is the staff surrounding him. Former defensive coordinator, now safeties coach Mike Tressel, defensive line coach Ron Burton and cornerbacks coach Harlon Barnett are all returning to coach the defense for the Spartans.
“There’s only so much you can get out of a kid from a call," Hazelton said. “ ... To ask Coach Mike (Tressel) Ron (Burton), and Harlon (Barnett) ‘Hey who are the guys I need to know best’ or ‘Hey I got a read on this kid, is he just quieter or does he not trust me?’ The ability to say ‘Hey, in the scheme how does this guy fit? What’s his good qualities, what does he need to work on?' I think that helps build your package.”
Hazelton does not consider himself to be a tech-savvy guy, but even with all the limitations this brings, he still believes the transition to Michigan State has been smooth.
“It’s actually going a lot smoother than I thought it would when I first heard how we were going to do this.” Hazelton said. “It feels like we're finally able to talk ball with these guys, and they understand what we’re saying. A lot of football is the communication they use between each other, and that we us with them. If we can get that down, then we are a step ahead for when we do get on the field.”
The newly appointed defensive coordinator has big shoes to fill, as the Michigan State defense has become known as one of the best defenses in college football year after year. With a defensive staff as experienced as mentioned earlier, and with a defensive minded head coach in Mel Tucker, it can spark some truly intriguing dialogue.
“The really cool thing is I think we’re all humble enough to say ‘Oh, that’s a really good point,” Hazelton said. “ ... It’s like having an offseason clinic except you are at work and you are doing it right now, and you are building your defense.”
As for the scheme, Hazelton wants to find what works best with the personnel he has. Being that Michigan State has been a four-defensive lineman down team in the Dantonio era, expect to see much more of that same scheme in 2020.
“We’ve been four down here for a long time, and we’ve recruited for that, so we’ll probably see a lot more of that,” Hazelton said.
However, Hazelton believes that the scheme they go with will not matter, but it is the effort of the team that counts.
“It’s really about getting the players to play as hard as they can play,” Hazelton said. “ ... Bottom line when guys are playing hard and running, they are going to cover up for each other. It really doesn’t matter if you are four down, three down, cover one, cover two, if you get guys to the ball, and you keep breeding that, then they cover up mistakes."
As of now, the Spartans are set to take the field on September 5 against fellow Big Ten opponent Northwestern, where we will get to see more of coach Hazelton’s defense and what it will look like going forward into the future.