Michigan State's secondary was horrific in 2021. Mel Tucker thinks he has the answer
It’s hard to take much meat from any spring game. And in the case of Michigan State this year, it’s darn near impossible.
The Spartans ran a true practice on Saturday that just happened to have TV cameras recording the proceedings. It may be the only live event to air on the Big Ten Network this year where the final image is of a team sitting on the field and stretching.
But even in a practice, you can figure out what a team is working on. And in the case of Michigan State, there is little mystery as to what needs to be improved in 2022.
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The Spartans rather miraculously finished 11-2 and No. 9 in the nation despite having its 130th-ranked pass defense. Michigan State allowed 324.8 yards per game through the air. The 27 touchdown passes permitted by the Spartans rated 111th.
This Achilles’ heel was repeatedly exposed in Michigan State’s most important game of the year. Ohio State threw for 449 yards and 6 touchdowns in a 56-7 blowout that was 49-0 at halftime. CJ Stroud went 32-of-35 for 432 yards before spending the entire second half on the bench.
Instead of reaching the Big Ten Championship Game, the Spartans were shown just how far they were from being true contenders.
Mel Tucker, a defensive coordinator by trade, is aware that needs to be remedied.
In the few nuggets shared with us on Saturday, it’s evident that getting to the quarterback will be one method of helping the back end of the defense. And that will be done with a transfer portal addition who could end up being the Kenneth Walker III of Michigan State’s defense.
Jacoby Windmon wins the day
Jacoby Windmon was as versatile a defender as they come in his 3 years at UNLV. He began his career as a linebacker/safety hybrid, moved to edge rusher as a sophomore, then became an inside linebacker last season. Windmon led the Rebels with 11.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks in 2021 before entering the transfer portal.
In one of Saturday’s very few moments that felt like a football game, he flashed that form.
Tucker created a situation for his offense to close out the spring game — move into field-goal range from your own 46-yard line with 46 seconds left and 1 timeout. And given last year’s performance from the secondary, it was fair to wonder if the offense would even need to settle for 3.
Payton Thorne needed only 2 plays to pick up a first down that likely put the Spartans 15 yards from field-goal range. Windmon “sacked” Thorne on the ensuing first down, putting the offense behind the chains and forcing it to burn that lone timeout.
The secondary had the edge for the remainder of the possession. Thorne didn’t complete another pass with the Spartans behind the chains.
There is a catch, of course. Michigan State only has 6 healthy offensive linemen right now, so getting to the quarterback is decidedly easier than it’s going to be during the season. But that tiny nugget showed the symbiotic nature of defense, and how getting to the quarterback benefits the secondary.
And that’s why Tucker’s most savvy coaching change this offseason might be the one he made up front.
Tucker’s outside-the-box hire
Conventional wisdom dictates that you would replace your secondary coach after such a poor performance by the unit. Not at Michigan State.
Spartans secondary coach Harlon Barnett predates Tucker on the coaching staff. Barnett spent 10 seasons coaching the defensive backs for Mark D’Antonio before a 2-year stint as Florida State’s defensive coordinator. Bringing him back was one of Tucker’s first moves upon getting hired as head coach.
Barnett wasn’t going anywhere.
Tucker decided to help the secondary by better harassing quarterbacks. To that end, he hired Brandon Jordan in a role as “pass rushing specialist.”
Jordan is not the defensive line coach. That’s Marco Coleman. Nor is he a linebackers coach. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton is the de facto linebackers coach, while special teams coordinator Ross Els works with the hybrid nickel/linebackers.
Jordan is, quite simply, the pass rushing specialist. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, he previously coached Windmon at John Ehret High School in New Orleans.
Jordan moved into the private sector at the end of 2018, starting his own pass-rushing training academy. More than 100 NFL players trained with him. Word spread quickly.
Last offseason, he spent time with the Arizona Cardinals on a Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.
In January, Tucker added him to Michigan State’s staff for the sole purpose of working with pass rushers. It feels like a niche move — the football equivalent of the guy who strictly played ’80s Billy Joel songs at the Catalina Wine Mixer.
But Tucker just witnessed rival Michigan beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten, and reach the CFP on the strength of pass rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. This is no crackpot move.
If Windmon getting to Thorne was a harbinger of things to come this fall, Michigan State’s secondary could be much improved statistically with very little changing in terms of personnel.