Michigan State is one of the early surprises of the college football season, after starting 2-0 and dominating the games from start to finish, matching its win total in Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker’s first season in East Lansing.
MSU outscored its first two opponents 77-35, gained 1,106 yards on offense (an achievement which took MSU four games to reach in 2020) and played exciting football for the first time in a long while.
The biggest difference, however, has not been on the field, despite the success so far. It's the players and coaches who are carrying themselves with a newfound sense of confidence that was not present last year after the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the 2020 season and prevented the coaching staff from getting to know their new team.
“Last year with COVID hittin' the way that it did, we didn't have a lot of time with these guys,” Wide Receivers Coach Courtney Hawkins said. “The expectations were high, but, honestly, we were with them four weeks, five weeks and we jumped right into playing games, man. It was a lot tougher than people realize, to get everybody on the same page, consistently.”
The 2020 season was filled with errors, as players were trying to learn the coaching staff’s new scheme and expectations for each position, which led to a litany of mental mistakes and growing pains on the field.
Hawkins said the confidence started to build within the team during spring ball because the team was able to be together and focus on improvement for the first time since Tucker and the coaching staff arrived.
The players noticed the shift, too.
“Last year it was just, we were trying to get lined up and learn how to play and things like that,” redshirt junior safety Michael Dowell said. “Now, year two with Coach Tucker and with Coach [Scottie] Hazleton and the staff, with Coach Barnett taking over to coach secondary, Coach [Taravares] Tillman also, I think that we're more comfortable. And being more comfortable, we have more confidence.”
One of the main focuses for the coaching staff this offseason was to instill confidence in the players, making sure the team holds one another accountable and is willing to be coached.
The staff has implemented several different types of training days throughout each week to emphasize what they want from the players. For example, Tuesday practices are called “Coach-me-Coach Tuesdays,” where players aren't allowed to make a single excuse. Instead, they must ask coaches to coach them rather than trying to excuse their mistakes on the field.
The goal is to make sure players are willing to be coached on their mistakes, improve and build a sense of personal accountability within the team, where players are not afraid to speak up and talk about issues they see.
“They are buying into it,” Defensive Backs Coach Harlon Barnett said. “They understand that we're all here to win. We all want to win and what we're telling them is for their benefit. We're not trying to hurt them, we want to see everybody succeed.”
The emphasis on looking inward and not making excuses over the offseason has helped strengthen relationships between players who didn't get to work together last year in the truncated and stop-and-start season.
“I think that's something that's built in the weight room," Dowell said. "Coach Tucker always says your team's built in the weight room. I think this offseason, our strength staff's done a great job just trying to challenge us. If it's on a Monday in February when we were lifting, challenging guys to put more weight on the bar. That translates to now, in September, when we're going over plays. If someone messes up in coverage, now you feel comfortable to challenge that person, too.”
The personal accountability and trust in the coaching staff have had their intended effect coming into the season. Not only is the team experiencing success from the fruits of their labor, but they are doing it with a visible confidence and swagger that was not apparent at any point last year.
The confidence on the field comes from the trust between the players and coaching staff, Dowell said. Being able to spend time with teammates after practice and be with each other away from the football facility has gone a long way in fostering the team’s trust.
“We're allowed to be around each other more, we're allowed to go out to eat more,” Dowell said. “We're just at a team hotel, we're spending time together. So, I think that is a benefit. And it's positive, not just for us, but all the teams in the country. That's the biggest thing that I can see is more guys are bought in because life is just easier now than it was last year.”
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