Michigan State football's Mel Tucker plans to use starters on struggling special teams

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

EAST LANSING — It isn’t as sexy a conversation starter as a quarterback battle, at least not to the general public. But get football coaches talking about special teams, and they tend to gush about their importance.

Mel Tucker and Michigan State football saw it a year ago, particularly watching opponents take back two punts for touchdowns. And he felt the return and coverage units needed overhauled as badly as the roster during the offseason.

So entering Year 2 at MSU, Tucker on Tuesday promised he intends to change things on kickoffs and punts to try and help the Spartans improve field position while hopefully putting their opponents at a disadvantage.

Starting with the personnel MSU uses.

Iowa's Charlie Jones (16) scores a touchdown on a 54-yard punt return ahead of Michigan State's Michael Dowell (10) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.
Iowa's Charlie Jones (16) scores a touchdown on a 54-yard punt return ahead of Michigan State's Michael Dowell (10) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.

“We're going to use starters. And our players, they know that,” Tucker said. “They've known that from Day 1, that we're gonna put the best players out there, the best combination of guys that we can find.

“We have made some adjustments in some areas in terms of scheme. And from a personnel standpoint, we made some changes. We feel like we have more depth overall in our team, and that bodes well for our special teams.”

NOT SAYING: Tucker doesn't reveal starting quarterback vs. Northwestern

MSU ranked 111th in special teams ratings according to footballoutsiders.com out of the 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that played last fall. Only Nebraska at 115th and Purdue at 120th were worse on special teams in the Big Ten during the pandemic-shortened 2020. That included finishing 121st in offensive field position, with the Spartans’ drives starting at their own 25.8-yard line on average, and 118th in defensive field position at the opponents’ 34.3. That 8.5-yard starting point disparity was fifth-worst in the nation.

“It's really field position,” Tucker said. “We talked to our guys this week and we talked to them about it quite a bit, about drive-start analysis of scoring probabilities based upon where the drop starts. A lot of a lot of it has to do with special teams.”

STATE COLLEGE, PA - DECEMBER 12: Jahan Dotson #5 of the Penn State Nittany Lions returns a punt for a touchdown against the Michigan State Spartans during the second half at Beaver Stadium on December 12, 2020 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
STATE COLLEGE, PA - DECEMBER 12: Jahan Dotson #5 of the Penn State Nittany Lions returns a punt for a touchdown against the Michigan State Spartans during the second half at Beaver Stadium on December 12, 2020 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

While MSU didn’t release a depth chart for Friday’s opener at Northwestern (9 p.m./ESPN), the Spartans return all of their specialists from a year ago other than at long snapper. Receivers Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed both returned punts and kicks in 2020, while sixth-year kicker Matt Coghlin handled kickoffs and one-time walk-on Bryce Baringer is back at punter. Freshman Hank Pepper is expected to be the long snapper.

3 MSU QUESTIONS: Northwestern trying to 'get a snapshot' of new-look MSU

Around them, however, Tucker wants his coverage units to play fast and furiously.

“We just have to go out and execute,” he said. “We have to run and hit, and we have to strain like crazy. And special teams, that's an important phase of the game.”

Roster updates

Michigan State defensive tackle Jacob Slade rushes Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State defensive tackle Jacob Slade rushes Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.

Tucker did not reveal the availability of injured junior defensive tackle Jacob Slade, who had not been practicing during preseason camp and his right hand and wrist in a cast during the Meet the Spartans event on Aug. 23.

“We'll have to see,” Tucker said. “We still have a few days left to go, so we'll see how it goes.”

Asked if there are any season-ending injuries at this point, the tight-lipped Tucker responded, “I don't see anyone that we think is gonna be a major contributor that's out, out.”

[ MSU game-by-game predictions: Will Spartans get to a bowl game? ]

Tucker added the 117-player roster is about “96, 97%” vaccinated for COVID-19.

As for two players who have not been working out with the Spartans during the offseason, wide receiver Ricky White and defensive back Michael Gravely, a university spokesman confirmed both players remain enrolled at MSU for the fall semester. Tucker last week said sophomore White and freshman Gravely, who enrolled in January, have not been participating in team activities.

Gaming with Tucker

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker talks to players during practice Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 at the team's facility in East Lansing.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker talks to players during practice Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 at the team's facility in East Lansing.

On the day MSU was named as one of 10 teams featured in EA Sports’ Madden NFL 22 Campus Legends mode, the 49-year-old Tucker said he played a few video games “when I was younger, when I had hair.” Including college football and NBA.

And with a number of his players having signed offseason name, image and likeness deals to get paid to game online against others, Tucker believes MSU’s spot in Madden could boost the Spartans in the eyes of recruits who spend their time gaming.

“It's great exposure for us,” he said. “It's good to be out there. And we talked about it's good for recruiting, obviously, and it's probably not good for some of our players. … But certainly, it all adds up. There's certain things that resonate with certain people.”

But don’t think just because he once played them that it makes Tucker a video game guy. He said during the pandemic, he tried to pick up the controller and get back into them, only to see how far they have come from his days playing Mortal Kombat to now with the frenetic action of the Call of Duty series.

“We were on these teams,” he said, “and I just kept getting shot in the back. I was like, 'Where'd they come from?'... I tried to get down with that and (realized) this is not the best use of my time.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football plans to use starters on special teams