Michigan State fans woke up Monday morning to a discouraging blanket of snow in East Lansing. It’s an ironic start to the week, one that marks the beginning of MSU spring football practices, the first being held Tuesday morning.
Michigan State football Head Coach Mel Tucker enters his fourth season with the Spartans, a pivotal one following a downtrodden 5-7 season that saw inconsistency from all three phases of the team. He wasn’t shy Monday afternoon in his first press conference of the spring, providing expectations and goals for the next month and the ones leading up to the Sep. 2 season-opener versus Central Michigan.
“Sometimes you have to get beat up and you have to get your face kicked in before you can really lay the true foundation and that's happened,” Tucker said. “Our guys are gonna compete and they're gonna fight. We have a chip on our shoulder. We know the areas where we need to improve.”
Tucker said the team will hold 15 practices over the next five weeks on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. As for a spring game, not much is known about the format, besides that it will take place April 15. Last year’s spring game at Spartan Stadium was a live practice instead of an 11-on-11 game due to a slew of injuries, particularly on the offensive line.
“We'll have to see because it really is based upon who's available, how many healthy players we have where we can actually split the team up and have a game, or we have to have some type of practice format that's not a game,” Tucker said.
Position groups open for competition, including quarterback
One thing Tucker has emphasized every spring as head coach of the Spartans is that every position group is open for competition all the time. He doesn’t believe in depth charts, opting for a fluid “rep chart” instead. This spring, that includes the quarterbacks, after redshirt senior Payton Thorne took a step back in his second season as the full-time starter.
“This is very clear that the quarterback position is an open competition and (Thorne) knows that and all the quarterbacks know that,” Tucker said. “So, competition is good. We have to play the players that give us the best chance to win at every position and quarterback's different.”
Thorne’s main competitors are redshirt junior Noah Kim and redshirt freshman Katin Houser. Kim offers experience, making four relief appearances last season while completing 14 of 19 passes for 174 and three touchdowns. Houser, meanwhile, played six offensive snaps and completed one pass to preserve his redshirt season. He was a flashy four-star prospect and leap.
As for Thorne, Tucker said he is looking for consistency from the quarterback that broke Michigan State’s single-season passing touchdown record in 2021.
“Payton's got a lot of experience and so we're looking for consistency and performance from all of our players,” Tucker said. “There's no difference with him and that's how you win. You perform consistently at a high level, on a winning level, day in and day out. You're able to take it to get to games and that's what we need at that position.”
And for Kim and Houser, Tucker said it can be as simple as execution in order to challenge Thorne or possibly overtake him as the starting quarterback.
“They just have to execute,” Tucker said. “They have to be fierce competitors, they have to execute the offense, they have to lead and take command and take control, be efficient and do what we ask them to do. It's going to be an open competition, so each guy has to be productive and be efficient. Whoever we feel like gives us the best chance, is who we're gonna go with.”
Replacing pass rush specialist Brandon Jordan
The Spartans made an out-of-the-box hiring one year ago, bringing in Brandon Jordan as a pass rush specialist. He hadn’t coached at the college level since 2015, but was working as an individual pass rush trainer with some of the NFL’s highest profile players.
The early results were encouraging in Jordan’s first year with the program, especially with the ascension of Jacoby Windmon, who is returning for a final season. Now, Jordan is moving onto the NFL, accepting a coaching position with the Seattle Seahawks.
Tucker said he vouched for Jordan when Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt reached out to him. Hurtt crossed paths with Tucker nearly 20 years ago when the two of them were on the Chicago Bears coaching staff together.
“I'm all about helping guys do what they want to do and so it's an opportunity that B.T. wanted to explore and I told him I totally support him 100%” Tucker said. “But that's what happens this time of year.”
The timing isn’t the most convenient for MSU, with a majority of assistant coaching positions across the country filled by now. Michigan State hired Diron Reynolds in late January as the new defensive line coach following the departure of Marco Coleman, and now has an open spot to retool a leaky defense.
Tucker said he hopes to move “fairly quickly” on a new hire, one that will likely be in the secondary.
More spring housekeeping
Michigan State also released its spring roster Monday, and it came with a position change for sixth-year running back Harold Joiner III, who is now listed as a defensive back along with a jersey change from No. 2 to No. 16.
The former Auburn transfer joined MSU ahead of the 2021 season and served as primary backup and third-down back to star running back Kenneth Walker III. However, Joiner’s role diminished last season and he received just two offensive touches and saw 176 special teams snaps. His 6-foot-4 frame could be useful as a defensive back in a group that lost multiple starters.
In addition, Tucker was in mid-season form in his update on the health of redshirt junior linebacker Darius Snow, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first game of the 2022 season.
“He’s still sore,” Tucker said. “He’ll be ready when he’s ready.”
We should get a better idea of Snow’s status during the 15-minute open window of practice Tuesday morning.