BLOOMINGTON – Change is never easy. But the Michigan State football program was forced into scramble mode following head coach Mark Dantonio’s unexpected retirement.
Amid allegations of NCAA recruiting violations, Dantonio retired last February, 24 hours before National Signing Day.
Michigan State took a pass at Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell before luring Colorado coach Mel Tucker away from Boulder to become the new Spartans head coach. Tucker began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at MSU under Nick Saban. Later, Tucker learned under both Saban as a defensive assistant at Alabama and Jim Tressel as a defensive assistant at Ohio State.
“There’s very few jobs like this in football, a place that has this type of tradition, history, commitment and resources,” Tucker said in his introductory press conference.
Tucker’s immediate concerns are to find a starting quarterback and replace nine starters on defense. Returning sophomore running back Elijah Collins (222 carries, 988 yards, five TDs) should lead the offense, but Tucker and his staff will need to decide whether to go with returning junior Rocky Lombardi at quarterback or take a chance on promising dual-threat redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.
On defense, Tucker intends to adapt his scheme based on personnel and does have a few strong players returning in senior defensive end Jacob Panasiuk (11 tackles for loss, five sacks) and senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons (90 tackles, 3.5 sacks). But it may take a few more recruiting classes for Tucker to develop the kind of attacking defensive style he employed at Georgia as defensive coordinator under Kirby Smart.
Here’s an early outlook for Michigan State heading into the 2020 season:
WHAT THEY LOST
Starting quarterback Brian Lewerke was up and down for the Spartans last season, passing for 3,079 yards with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Kenny Willekes was a standout on the defensive line throughout his Michigan State career with 49 career tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks.
Two more defenders – linebacker Joe Bachie and cornerback Josiah Scott – will be tough to replace as well. Bachie had 285 career tackles and seven career sacks for the Spartans while Scott earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2019 with three interceptions and a career-high 55 tackles.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Reed has the potential to emerge as a big-play threat for the Spartans. Reed sat out last season after earning FWAA freshman All-American honors with Western Michigan in 2018 with 56 catches for 798 yards and eight TDs.
Incoming freshman defensive end Kyle King, a former New Palestine standout, could get some snaps early on the defensive line with the departure of Willikes, while freshman Ian Stewart (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) is another big target at receiver capable of making an early impact.
PROSPECTS FOR 2020
Michigan State gets an early Big Ten test, opening the season at home against Northwestern.
Expectations are low for the Spartans, given the coaching transition and the losses on defense. With spring practice wiped out to the coronavirus pandemic, Tucker didn’t get a chance to implement his system early and will be forced to play catch up throughout summer drills.
Still, Michigan State could surprise some teams if Collins can continue to run the ball effectively and a strong quarterback emerges.
Another trip to a bowl is possible this season but contending for a division title remains years away.