Hello again, Spartan Nation. This is my 12th year as a contributor to all of our shapes, outlets, and forms. It seemed like a good time to mix up the format with a new Head Coach a bit. This series replaces the Scope of the Spartans, which was a monthly dive deep into the football program. Spartan Football Essentials will come to you each week within the first 24 hours after that week's game ends. It should be significantly condensed and friendly to "read on the go," as many folks asked for. Please enjoy it, critique it, and share it with your friends, family, classmates, and kin. I look forward to bringing the same kind of analysis and insight you've come to expect from this space since 2009.
The number one key to the Offense breaking out under Mel Tucker is the Offensive Line's ability to consistently compete for upfront. Nothing great will happen for the MSU Offense until that playing group rebuilds to a competitive level in the division. There is no way around that and no short cut to getting there in a few months. This is not a "kinder and gentler" division in College Football. This is the premier division in the most prestigious conference around, and there's no sign the East will get any easier anytime soon. It won't happen overnight, and MSU may not measure up before 2022 kicks off, but keep your eye on the line as the Mel Tucker era begins.
Of course, we can't talk about the 2020 Offense without considering the Quarterback position. It remains the most important position in the sport. It seems a safer bet that Rocky Lombardi will finally get an opportunity to prove whether he can be MSU's starter. It doesn't appear he ever got that chance during the last two seasons when there were at least a couple of points in time where many expected or believed he deserved a real shot.
Is it as simple as saying Lombardi should've been the Spartans starter from the Maryland game in 2018 to at least the end of that season? No, but it seems really clear that Mark Dantonio's staff completely whiffed at the opportunity to find what Lombardi could do as a starter. That was nearly two years ago now, and we're still not exactly sure what to expect from Lombardi will bring to that role. At least it feels more certain that we're finally about to find out if Lombardi can be MSU's next signal-caller. If Lombardi is not the guy, Jay Johnson's Offense has a couple of other Quarterbacks that have been around long enough to send out and fully evaluate as potential starters at the Big Ten level. As Connor Cook proved to Spartan fans once and for all, you never know exactly what you're going to get out of a starting Quarterback until you send one out and take a real look.
The Spartan defense slipped a bit in the Mark Dantonio era's final two seasons from their very high standards. Given what happened to the dysfunctional offense and deteriorating chemistry around the program, it wasn't too big a shock. There's only so long an elite unit can keep it up while the others around them start to lag further behind. The air is again fresh around the Defense as 2020 begins, but feels comfortable. Comfortable in the competent coaches returning from the Dantonio era, and with new voices and faces on that side of the ball that were handpicked by Mel Tucker to coach at MSU. Tangible results should reappear, with some authority, sooner than later. This group looks ready to bring the noise again.
Beyond 2020, the Defense should get back to an elite level quicker than the Offense or Special Teams. Michigan State's established tradition of standout Defense should continue and thrive because of the background and pedigree that Mel Tucker brings to town. Look for a newly sharpened edge from the Defense this fall. It should look familiar but popping with some new ingredients and a restored foundation back on the road to competing at the top of the Big Ten East again.
A lot of eyes will be looking to the back end of the Defense as the Spartan secondary tries to reclaim its place among the best in the country. They return enough talent to get that swag back, but it might take longer than anyone around Spartan Nation wants it to. It should not take as long to revive the back end as it did for Pat Narduzzi and company to build more than ten years ago, but it's also not fair to expect they'll flip a switch and be back to humming along before we're all out hunting for turkeys next month. Of course, no position group operates alone. The Spartans need to find a new field leader for the Defense, and they are, in fact, installing a new scheme. While we expect them to bounce back first, we all know that the best program updates can take a while to download and run smoothly fully.
Matt Coghlin is the most interesting player of this unit as 2020 kicks off. Coghlin has had several highs during his first three seasons, placing kicks and a handful of downers that had to leave some scars. Such is the life of a major college or professional placekicker. The extended offseason should have given Coghlin the time needed to process, work through, and get beyond those low points from 2019. When a kicker hits a couple of those bumps in the road, it's rarely something they can bounce back from during a season, even at the NFL level, where we so often see a kicker on a bad streak released and replaced before the next week game. A better kicker usually can recover from a tough stretch during an offseason. We have seen that happen at both the major college and NFL levels, and we should expect that might happen for the 5th year Senior. However, if Coghlin struggles out of the gate, look for true Freshman Jack Olsen to place his first kicks.
What an offseason it has been. Remember back to February, when Mark Dantonio made a quick escape, surprising the entire Big Ten, and even some inside his program? That seemed pretty crazy at the time, but boy, does that now seem like an incredibly long time ago. Spartan Football's scrappy search for its next football coach wasn't pretty, wasn't easy, and never should've been that stressed. That was on Mark Dantonio, and that's a discussion for another day or someone else's book. That was then, and this is very clearly different now.
The search nearly got off track, taking quicker dips and dives than the more traditional and planned out type, but fortunately for Spartan Nation, it landed at home with the hiring of Mel Tucker. Coach Tucker is an extremely competent and accomplished football coach who has helped build championship college programs and spent significant time at the NFL level. Seriously, if you haven't looked at his complete coaching resume yet, take a good look. It jumps out at you, and Tucker is on record calling the head coaching gig at Michigan State University a "dream job." When we look back at the Mel Tucker era of Spartan Football someday, that may well be the story's first sentence.
Tucker's dream and Michigan State's commitment to providing Tucker with the level of support and resources needed to compete on a national stage in the 2020s makes the outlook moving forward for Spartan Football as bright as it's been in many years. The road to get here has not been easy for anyone around Spartan Football for the last few years, but come Saturday afternoon; we will have finally arrived at a new day for Michigan State Football.
The Big Ten set off a firestorm this summer when they postponed the season's start in such a confusing way. From angry coaches to angrier players and parents, the Big Ten leadership stumbled and fumbled what should have been a simple and clear decision to delay, not to cancel, the start of the 2020 season. Instead, a loud minority of the Big Ten public was convinced that the season was suddenly gone for good or, at best, possibly moved to next spring in a rather abbreviated form.
It didn't matter whether school presidents and Big Ten brass felt above the debate that was sparking up at ground level; they didn't handle it well. They should've stepped up and spoke out clearly, and often as soon as it became clear, there was growing confusion. They needed to clear up the fact that the start of the season had been postponed, which did not mean the 2020 season was canceled. They didn't do that. They didn't hire anybody to deliver that message for them. And they don't appear interested in looking back from here. We all hope they learned a tough lesson there that can be rightfully applied in the future. It never should've been that messy.
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