In an exclusive Spartan Nation interview, senior contributor Jonathan Schopp ran into head football coach Mel Tucker at Michigan State's annual "Atlanta Spartans" alumni golf outing.
Tucker, who was the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia from 2016 to 2018, was happy to be back in a state that he has made a priority on the recruiting trail for the Spartans.
“I love Georgia. We had a really good time here when I was at UGA, and Kirby’s really got the program going down here," Tucker said. "The fans are great, the alumni are great – we’ve got a lot of Spartans down here in the Atlanta area.”
Michigan State is set to begin its summer conditioning program on May 31, and Tucker is excited to build the foundation of his 2022 squad with the work they put in over these next couple months.
“Our team is built in the weight room, and our players know that," Tucker said. "Strength and conditioning is the foundation of everything we do. We want to be able to play harder for longer. We need to be able to give relentless effort and extreme effort at all times, and so that comes with our strength and conditioning.”
Since Tucker's takeover in February of 2020, the Spartans have ingrained the 'Keep Chopping' mantra into their program. There was no better example of that mantra coming to fruition than when Michigan State overcame a 16-point, third-quarter deficit to beat Michigan at Spartan Stadium last season, 37-33, in an all-time classic.
“We’re going to be strong in the fourth quarter. That’s what our whole program is all about, and it starts in the trenches," Tucker said. "You’re going to see a huge difference, I believe, in the size, the strength and the power of our offensive line and our defensive line. That’s where it starts. That’s where we can really make the most difference.”
Michigan State had depth issues and injury concerns at offensive line during spring practice in April, but at the time Tucker said he expected his veteran O-lineman who had to miss time this spring due to injury to be back for summer conditioning.
Depth and injury concerns at offensive line are warranted, but Michigan State has the right position coach to get the most out of what they have at the position in OL coach Chris Kapilovic.
Speaking to the crowd at the alumni golf outing, Tucker said that Kapilovic shut down interest from Georgia and USC to remain the offensive line coach at Michigan State. The fact that Kapilovic may have been coveted by two of the biggest brands in college football speaks to his aptness to get the job done this year in East Lansing.
Midway through the month of May, recruiting season is in full swing around the country, and that's no different for Tucker and his staff. The topic of recruiting made headlines this week as Alabama's Nick Saban and Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher traded barbs and accusations over using Name, Image and Likeness tactics on the trail.
Tucker did not delve specifically into that exchange between Saban and Fisher, but said Michigan State will continue to adapt to the recent changes in college football and put the program in the best position to compete in recruiting.
“I think things will start to settle down," Tucker said. "We just have to take it one day at a time, work our process. There’s a lot of new in college football right now, but we’re able to adapt and adjust and just take it one day at a time.”
The topic then turned to Michigan State's returning signal-caller, quarterback Payton Thorne, who had a record-setting season in his first season as the starter for the Spartans.
“He’s a coach’s kid. He loves football," Tucker said of Thorne. "He’s very mature for his age, he’s very focused, he doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low."
Thorne threw for a school-record 27 passing touchdowns in 2021, and also had the third-highest passing yards in a single season by a Michigan State quarterback with 3,240 yards threw the air. Only former Spartans Jeff Smoker (3,395) and Kirk Cousins (3,316) have thrown for more in one year.
"He’s hyper-competitive," Tucker said. "But he knows how to keep the main thing, the main thing – do your job, and trust that your teammates are going to do theirs. And that’s kind of how he goes about his business.”
Finally, the conversation turned to special teams. Michigan State lost long-time kicker Matt Coughlin to graduation this offseason, but the special teams unit received a nice boost when second team All-Big Ten punter Bryce Baringer announced he would return to East Lansing for a sixth year.
“I expect us to be solid," Tucker said. "Play field position football in the kick game and create explosive plays, be physical and score points when we have the opportunity. So, I feel good about our kicking game.”
Tucker and Michigan State are chomping at the bit to get back on the field and prove that the 11-2 record in 2021 was no fluke. The Spartans have grander aspirations in 2022 — Tucker and his players have made no qualms about their expectations to compete for championships — but that starts with the work the players put in the weight room starting at the end of May.
“We have a very strong strength and conditioning program in the summer," Tucker said. "Players will run and they’ll lift with our strength and conditioning coaches, and we’ll get a little work with them in the classroom and on the field as a coaching staff. We’re just going to lay a really strong foundation going into fall camp, so our guys will be ready to go.”