In an exclusive interview with Spartan Nation, senior contributor Jonathan Schopp met head football coach Mel Tucker at the Atlanta Spartans’ annual alumni golf trip in Michigan.
Tucker, who was the defense coordinator at the University of Georgia from 2016 to 2018, was happy to be back in a state where he is a priority on the Spartans recruiting path.
“I love Georgia. We had a really good time here when I was at UGA, and Kirby really made the program work here,” said Tucker. “The fans are great, the alumni are great — we have a lot of Spartans down here in the Atlanta area.”
Michigan State is expected to begin their summer conditioning program on May 31, and Tucker looks forward to laying the foundation for his 2022 roster with the work they put in over the next few months.
“Our team is built in the weight room and our players know that,” Tucker said. “Strength and conditioning are the foundation of everything we do. We want to be able to play harder for longer. We have to be able to push ourselves relentlessly and to the extreme at all times, and that comes from our strength and conditioning.”
Since Tucker’s acquisition in February 2020, the Spartans have incorporated the “keep chopping” mantra into their programming. There was no better example of this mantra being realized when Michigan State came down from a 16-point deficit in the third quarter last season and defeated Michigan 37-33 at Spartan Stadium in an all-time classic.
“We will be strong in the fourth quarter. That’s what our entire program is about, and it starts in the trenches,” Tucker said. “I think you’re going to see a big difference in the size, the strength and the power of our offensive line and our defensive line. That’s where it starts. This is where we can really make the biggest difference.”
Michigan State had depth problems and injury concerns on the offensive line during spring training in April, but at the time Tucker said he expected his veteran O-lineman, who missed time this spring with an injury, to be back for summer conditioning would.
Depth and injury concerns on offense are warranted, but Michigan State has the right positional coach to make the most of its position in OL coach Chris Kapilovic.
Speaking to the crowd at the alumni golf outing, Tucker said Kapilovic dropped interest from Georgia and USC in remaining Michigan State’s offensive line coach. The fact that Kapilovic may have been coveted by two of college football’s biggest brands speaks to his suitability to get the job done at East Lansing this year.
By mid-May, recruiting season is in full swing across the country, and it’s no different for Tucker and his staff. The topic of recruitment made headlines this week when Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas’ A&M Jimbo Fisher traded barbs and accusations for using name, image and likeness tactics on the trail.
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Tucker didn’t specifically address that exchange between Saban and Fisher, but said Michigan State will continue to adapt to recent changes in college football and put the program in the best position to compete for recruitment.
“I think things will settle down,” Tucker said. “We just have to take it one day at a time and work our process. There’s a lot that’s new in college football right now, but we can adapt and adapt and just take it one day at a time.
The topic then turned to returning Michigan State signal caller quarterback Payton Thorne, who had a record season in his first season as a starter for the Spartans.
“He’s a coach 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, he 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 in the air. Only former Spartans Jeff Smoker (3,395) and Kirk Cousins (3,316) have pitched more in a year.
“He’s hyper-competitive,” Tucker said. “But he knows how to keep the main thing, the main thing – doing his job and trusting his teammates will do theirs. And that’s how he goes about his business.”
Finally, the conversation turned to special teams. Michigan State lost longtime kicker Matt Coughlin by graduation this offseason, but the special teams got a nice boost when second-team All-Big Ten player Bryce Baringer announced he was moving to East Lansing for a sixth year would return.
“I expect us to be solid,” Tucker said. “Play football on the field in the kick game and create explosive plays, be physical and score when we have the opportunity. So I feel good about our kicking game.”
Tucker and Michigan State are trying to get back on the field and prove that the 11-2 record in 2021 wasn’t a fluke. The Spartans have bigger ambitions in 2022 – Tucker and his players have no qualms about their expectations of battling for championships – but that starts with the work players are putting into the weight room beginning in late May.
“We have a very strong strength and conditioning program this summer,” Tucker said. “The players will be running and lifting weights with our strength and conditioning coaches and we will be doing 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 for fall camp so our boys are ready to go.”