East Lansing, MI – 2020 wasn't an easy year for the Michigan State football program.
Mark Dantonio, the school's all-time winningest head coach, retired February 4, one day before signing day, and Mel Tucker was hired eight days later, giving him a month to put together a staff and get ready for spring practices.
The coronavirus pandemic halted the process, along with any opportunity to install new schemes and build relationships with his new players.
After MSU returned to campus in June for additional training, they shut everything down for 14-days due to COVID-19 issues.
Then the league postponed the season, forcing teams to sit on their hands for a month before changing course and presenting a revised schedule.
The challenges Michigan State faced were on full display against Rutgers, Iowa, Ohio State, and Indiana, yet they showed flashes vs. Michigan and Northwestern.
It was a conflicting year, understandably so – the Spartans season was an emotional one, ranging from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
To call it a success is probably wrong, but Tucker and his staff got everything they needed to out of a first season played in a pandemic.
He became the second coach in MSU history to defeat the Wolverines on his first try, securing their place in the rivalry while simultaneously sending Michigan's season into an unexpected spiral.
And Tucker did so at a time where UM appeared to be contenders.
That will only bolster the staff's recruiting pitch, as Tucker sells the program to student-athletes and fans who need MSU to be competitive with "the school down the road."
Plus, Michigan State's late-season victory over Northwestern showed maturity and the ability to face adversity.
The Spartans also received an impressive first half from redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, who started at Penn State, providing hope for the passing game and next year.
Tucker learned enough about Rocky Lombardi; yes, he's an excellent leader, a tough kid, and can accurately toss a deep ball, but he is too inconsistent.
After nine career starts, six of them in 2020, that's not going to change, and a Michigan State team outscored 125-19 in losses to Iowa, IU, and OSU is likely to pivot to Thorne or someone else.
Between the two of them, the passing game became a bright spot, ranking 54th (238.9 YPG); even though Thorne will compete for the position this offseason, MSU isn't expected to lose any of its top-5 wide receivers, including Jalen Nailor, a future NFL talent ready to blossom.
However, developing the offensive line, tight ends, and running backs is essential, so Tucker signed five new offensive linemen, four freshmen, and one Arkansas State transfer in Jarrett Horst, who was named a first-team all-conference tackle in the Sun Belt.
Needing more from the run game would be an understatement; the last rushing touchdown scored by a Spartan RB came from Elijah Collins in the second quarter vs. Illinois on Nov. 11, 2019.
That's nearly 47 quarters (11.5 games) without a tailback rushing for a score – MSU finished 122nd in rushing and struggled to generate any push upfront.
Jordon Simmons, Connor Heyward, and Collins will all be there, but Michigan State is bringing in two more backs, including Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III and Oak Park product Davion Primm.
MSU's 2021 recruiting class features 11 defensive players, no transfers as of now; Rayshaun Benny (didn't sign during the early period) and linebacker Ma'a Gaoteote rank within the top-200 prospects nationally; they will usher in a new era assuming Benny signs.
The Spartans are thin at linebacker and desperately need depth, especially after Antjuan Simmons declared for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Even so, expect Tucker to turn it up a notch following the new year, providing Michigan State with more defensive help to counteract Simmons, Shakur Brown, and Naquan Jones departures.
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