Michigan State has a lot of things to be proud of following the 2021 football season, but the Spartans' pass defense is not one of those things.
Does head coach Mel Tucker see a drastic improvement coming from MSU's secondary in 2022?
“I hope so, man. We can’t get any worse," the head coach said with a smile last week at Big Ten Media Days.
Tucker is correct. Michigan State can't get any worse against the pass then they were a season ago. The Spartans finished last in the country in both total pass yards surrendered (4,052) and pass yards allowed per game (337.7).
Tucker hasn't forgotten the numbers, and he's made sure his secondary remembered too when players returned for spring football.
"On the first day, I said, ‘Listen, we were last in the country. Dead ass last. That’s going to change. But it’s going to change with the guys in this room, and the coaches here. That’s how it’s going to change,'" Tucker said.
He knows that Michigan State's opponents are going to attack that area of his defense again this year.
“Everyone knows that that was not a strong suit of our football team last year, and we got exposed in games where the opponent, their strong suit was throwing the football," Tucker said. "When they had really good quarterback play, good offensive line play, good protection and good receivers, then we struggled.”
Senior safety Xavier Henderson, who returns to East Lansing for a fifth-year this fall, said his head coach's "tough love" approach can be difficult to swallow at times, but Henderson knows it comes from Tucker's desire to see his players succeed.
“We used to have signs up in the building showing how many passing yards we gave up, and that’s just Coach Tuck trying to motivate us," Henderson said. "But, sometimes it’s hard. Just like anything, you lose confidence a little bit. There was games that I lost confidence sometimes. It happens, but we’ve got to find a way to put it all together this year.”
The senior began rebuilding that confidence and challenging his teammates shortly after the Spartans won the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
“Good win in the bowl game fellas. Let’s go enjoy that, and then we’ll get back to it," Henderson said.
"Now we’re in the summer, and we’re just working, man. The way our team is set up, the way our defense is set up, dudes aren’t going to run that ball on us like that. So, they’ve got to come in and pass the ball around. We’re just going to have to step up to that challenge and get better.”
While MSU added help at cornerback with Georgia transfer Ameer Speed, Tucker iterated that the majority of improvement has to come from guys who were already on the team in 2021.
“A lot of those guys are back, so there’s a chip on their shoulder, and then pride kicks in," Tucker said.
“We’ve got pass-rush guys, and we’re better there, but it’s really going to be with those guys in there. We’re going to find a way to get it done, and we’re going to own it. We weren’t very good last year, and we know that, and we’ve got to do something about it. It’s really up to us to figure out a way to be more consistent back there and give our football team a chance to be a good team.”
Henderson believes the pieces are already in the room for Michigan State to have a good pass defense, it's just a matter of getting the talent to work together cohesively.
“If you look at it…we had corners who played really good games, individual games," Henderson said. "Chuck [Brantley] had that pick versus Michigan. Ronald [Williams] played a really good game versus Indiana. Marqui [Lowery] played a good game versus Indiana, had a good game versus Rutgers. Chaz (Chester Kimbrough) had that game-winning interception versus Nebraska. So, we’ve got to get dudes to just put it together, get confident.”
Part of that cohesion can come naturally from players having a year in the system under their belts.
“We had so many dudes last year – Ronald, Chester, Marqui, Chuck – all kinds of dudes that hadn’t been used to playing under Coach Hazelton," Henderson said. "You know, dudes are getting more comfortable with our system, so we’ve got a better chance of trying to attack our opponent instead of worrying about what we’re trying to do.”
Tucker broke it down in even more detail.
“A big part of what you do back there is technique and fundamentals, and actually understanding the different coverages that we have," Tucker said. "Understanding that every coverage is not designed to stop everything.
"There’s a weakness of a coverage, and there’s a strength. I believe that our players just have, among other things, they have a better understanding of the scheme, the coverages. What they’re meant to do, what they’re not meant to do, what we’re going to give them and what we can’t give them. Our tackling has improved, and our technique has improved – our attention to detail.”
That new level understanding is helping the Spartans play faster in the back end of their defense.
“When you get something down like the back of your hand, you’re not thinking about what you’ve got to do," Henderson said. "You’ve got the opportunity to think about what the offense is trying to do, how are they trying to attack me, things like that.”
Tucker is personally coaching the cornerback position this season, which Henderson believes will provide a big boost for that group.
“Any time Coach Tucker is in the room, dudes...tighten up a little bit more," Henderson said. "He’s coached so many good DBs before. He’s got Jim Thorpe Award winners, Minkah Fitzpatrick – one of the best safeties in the league — [and] he’s been the D-coordinator at Georgia. So, what he’s got to say holds weight. I think it gives a little bit of confidence to the corners in the room when they’ve got someone like him coaching them.”
In tandem with secondary coach Harlon Barnett, Tucker expects to see his Spartans make vast improvements at the back end of their defense this fall.
“Coach Barnett does a great job with the secondary," Tucker said. "Because we hired [pass rush specialist] Brandon Jordan, we only have one secondary coach now, so I’m going to fill in and help out with the corners. I think that’s only going to help out our team. I anticipate that we’ll be a lot better this year.”