Last season, Michigan State finished last in the nation in passing yards allowed per game and faced more pass attempts than any team.
Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker, and everyone else in the country, knew that was a weakness of the squad and he was very blunt when he spoke to the team about that weakness.
“I went in the first day and said we were last in the country, dead a-- last,” Tucker said.
He said during the 2022 Big Ten Media Days that things are going to be different this season and there are a lot of reasons to believe that statement will age well.
The secondary corps is returning all of its starters from the end of last season, as well as adding sixth-year Georgia transfer, 6’3” cornerback Ameer Speed.
Although none of these guys are new to Tucker’s thought process and scheme, Tucker still emphasized the need for development in the basic skills in the secondary.
“I believe that our players have a better understanding of the scheme, the coverages and what they are meant to do and not meant to do, what we are going to give them, and what we can’t give them, and then our tackling has improved and our technique has improved and our attention to detail,” Tucker said.
Now that a lot of the new players from last year are familiar with Tucker’s system, fifth-year safety Xavier Henderson thinks that players will be more comfortable in their positions this upcoming season.
“When you get something down on the back of your hand you are not thinking about what you have to do, you have the opportunity to think about what the offense is trying to do,” Henderson said. “We had so many dudes last year who had not been used to playing under Coach Hazelton. Dudes are getting more comfortable with our system so now we have a better chance to attack our opponent instead of worrying about what we are trying to do.”
Another area of the defense that might look improved as well is the pass-rush. With the hirings of NFL guru and pass-rush specialist Brandon Jordan and defensive line coach Marco Coleman, as well as the additions of the highly-touted transfers senior defensive end Khris Bogle, fifth-year linebacker Aaron Brule and senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon, there is a belief that the pass-rush will be better than last year.
“Pass rush and coverage always work together and the players believe in what BT and Marco are teaching and we saw results in real-time in spring ball,” Tucker said. “It is only going to get better and I am looking forward to seeing what we can get done in fall camp in preparation for the games.”
As well as adjustments to the defensive line coaching staff, there have been some adjustments to the secondary coaching staff as former cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman left for a job at Georgia Tech. Since then, Tucker has stepped into that role and Henderson has seen some things change from the guys around him.
“Anytime coach Tucker is in the room dudes tighten up a little bit more,” Henderson said. “He has coached so many good defensive backs before and so what he has to say holds weight. It also gives a bit of confidence to the corners of the room when they have someone like him coaching them.”
There were moments last year that lead Henderson to believe that the area can be much improved if players can get confident and put it all together.
“We had corners that played really good individual games,” he said. “Chuck (Charles Brantley) had that pick against Michigan, Ronald (Williams) had a good game against Indiana and Marqui (Lowery) played a good game against Indiana and against Rutgers and Chazz (Chester Kimbrough) had that game-winning interception against Nebraska.”
Another reason to believe that change can be seen is that offensive players have taken notice of the strides the defense has taken since last year in practice and the work being put in to improve. Redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed believes that area of the team will be much improved in the fall.
“The team chemistry is a lot better and we are learning a lot more about each other outside of football,” Reed said. When you know people to a more personal level, it makes you want to go a lot harder for them.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne said he has seen the extra work being put in this past spring and summer and that work can be somewhat accredited to something Tucker installed last season.
“We used to have signs in the building that would show how many passing yards we gave up and that is just Coach Tuck trying to motivate us,” Henderson said.
At the end of the day, Tucker and the team know that improvement is needed in the secondary.
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“We were not very good last year and we know that,” Tucker said. “It is up to us to figure out a way to be more consistent to give our football team a chance to beat good teams.”
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