Michigan State football's Mel Tucker has an interesting process of picking team captains
One of the hallmarks of Michigan State football’s defense the past 13 years came from dominant play at middle linebacker.
Former coach Mark Dantonio is gone. So is former captain Joe Bachie. And the Spartans’ new coach Mel Tucker must find someone new to run the defense.
Tucker did not specify any names Tuesday during his first game-week news conference. All he is saying going into Saturday’s opener against Rutgers is that he believes MSU has “multiple guys at the linebacker position that can play for us.”
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“We feel like it's a group that is ready to lead and can make the calls and get lined up and run and hit and make plays," Tucker said.
Moving Antjuan Simmons is one potential option. The 6-foot, 216-pound senior started the first two games in the middle after Bachie’s career-ending suspension last season. Simmons moved back to his weak-side spot providing speed and tackling in the open field, with Tyriq Thompson sliding into the middle for the Spartans’ final three games.
"I learned you gotta be a little bigger to play in the box," Simmons said with a laugh Tuesday night. "So I had to go put on some weight in the offseason."
Junior Noah Harvey — who posted 28 tackles, including 2.5 stops for a loss in the final three games — is another option. He started against Illinois and Michigan on the weak side with Simmons inside, then replaced Thompson on the strong side, starting five games in total.
Sophomore Chase Kline has been one of the few other linebackers getting any name-recognition from the tight-lipped coaching staff. He spent time last year defensive end due to injuries upfront and also worked behind Simmons. Other options include sophomore Jeslord Boateng and redshirt freshman Marcel Lewis, who initially opted out but decided to play. And three true freshmen — Devin Hightower, Cal Haladay and Cole DeMarzo — could get a look at the linebacker vacancy, depending on who eventually occupies the middle.
“So we're trying to get as many guys ready to play as we can,” Tucker said, “and they all know that.”
Added Simmons: "I think we could travel all 10 to 11 of our linebackers. And at bare minimum, the guys who aren't in the two-deep would be able to go on special teams. I'm confident in the ability of everybody in our linebacker room. All the young guys have been doing extremely well."
MSU had two other potential middle linebacker candidates at the end of last season who are not with the team right now. Ed Warriner transferred to Michigan in January, while redshirt freshman Luke Fulton was suspended along with walk-on linebacker Charles Willekes following their Sept. 8 arrests tied to an alleged assault at an East Lansing fraternity house.
“We released a statement about Luke and Charles, they've been suspended from the team,” Tucker said. “We acted quickly and decisively about that.”
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Waiting on captains
Tucker is taking an interesting approach to naming captains for this season — he plans to do it after it’s done.
It was a philosophy Tucker used last year at Colorado, where he let the team vote on captains for 2019 prior to the team banquet in December. MSU will have revolving game captains weekly, like the Buffaloes did.
“My coaching staff and myself will pick those captains weekly, and then we’ll announce them to the team,” Tucker said. “And then at the end of the season, the players will vote on captains. And then those will be the permanent captains for this particular season.”
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No COVID updates
Along with no depth chart, Tucker would not reveal if any MSU players might be forced to miss the game due to COVID-19. Athletes who test positive in a rapid antigen test and subsequent PCR test are required to sit out 21 days per Big Ten's protocol.
“We have released those results weekly for a number of months now. And so as of right now, we're working with the guys that we have,” Tucker said. “And as the week unfolds, we'll determine who will be the guys that are gonna dress and be available to us to play.”
Tucker also did not reveal if any more players had opted out. Two Spartans, offensive linemen Jordan Reid and Justin Stevens, decided not to play this fall due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Facing the unknown
The Spartans ripped Rutgers, 27-0, just 11 months ago in Piscataway, New Jersey. But things have changed significantly in both places since.
Like MSU, Rutgers also has a new staff — albeit this is head coach Greg Schiano’s second Scarlet Knights stint. That adds another layer of complexity for Tucker and his coaches as they try to prepare.
“When you go into the first game of the season, you're expecting some unscouted looks,” Tucker said. “You're not quite sure exactly what you're going to see.”
Rutgers went 2-10 last season and is on a 21-game Big Ten losing streak. The Scarlet Knights are 36-63 in the eight seasons since Schiano left them for the NFL.
In his first tenure, Schiano went 68-67 over 11 years from 2001-11 but produced winning teams in six of his last seven seasons. Tucker called Schiano “a good friend.”
“I have a lot of respect for him. He's an outstanding football coach, a great man,” Tucker said. “And he's a proven winner.”
Schiano was hired in early December and got a two-month head start on Tucker in transitioning into his new program. Stil, he told reporters during his press conference Monday, “it’s been a roller-coaster for all of us” in getting ready for the season. He added he has “an idea” of how the Scarlet Knights might play.
“Until you go play, you really don’t know,” he said. “A lot of coaches will tell you they know. I wish I knew the secret.”
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.