When it comes to building a great defense, Mike Tressel knows what he’s talking about.
For 13 seasons, Tressel was an integral part of the Michigan States defensive staff, leading the linebackers for most of that time, while also serving as co-defensive coordinator for three seasons and sole coordinator for the past two seasons.
During that trajectory, all 13 seasons with Mark Dantonio, the Spartan defense was among the best in the country. With Tressel on board, Michigan State was in the top 10 nationally in total defense and hasty defense six times (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018). On four of those occasions, Michigan State was also in the top 10 countries for scoring defense (2011, 2012, 2013, 2018). Michigan State also led the Big Ten in the hasty defense six times, including No. 1 in the FBS in 2014 and 2018.
So, nearly two weeks into practice as a Michigan safety coach under Mel Tucker, it’s worth noting what Tressel has seen from the defense as a whole, and it’s an encouraging opinion.
I am excited about the development of the defense, Tressel said. Our guys obviously have a foundation to build on and a belief in a great defense here. But they are learning some new techniques, learn some new ways to skin a cat and believe it, so I’m excited about that.
It also helps that Tuckers’ history lies in building defenses and he has assembled a staff including coordinator Scottie Hazelton, Ron Burton who leads the defense line, Ross Els who coaches the linebackers and Harlon Barnett with the cornerbacks who have a proven record of be on duty.
Everyone has a little bit of a different taste or tweaking or coaching point, Tressel said, and it was good to hear that. I have certainly grown as a coach.
Tressel is also growing in a new role. Although he is knowledgeable about his current job group, he has been primarily a linebackers coach throughout his career.
The return of Barnett, who co-coordinated with Tressel for three seasons and coached high school under Dantonio for 11 years, has helped. Tressel said he relies on Barnett’s years of experience in the back end, while the long-term coaching partners have the comfort of knowing each other and everyone on the workforce.
We love each other like brothers, and that makes it so much easier, Tressel said.
All of this allowed Tressel to focus on a talented safety group just over a week away from the season opener against Rutgers.
The unit is led by junior Xavier Henderson, and after that there is quite a battle for starting places and playing time. Senior Tre Person expects to see a lot of work, while sophomore Michael Dowell, freshman Tate Hallock and junior Emmanuel Flowers are also in the mix. That also applies to the real freshman Darius Snow.
I think Xavier’s leadership continues to grow and his game keeps getting better, Tressel said. Michael Dowell, Tre Person has had some really good falls so far so I’m excited they get more playtime. They’ve both spent a lot of time on the field, but there are still a few. Darius Snow, Emmanuel Flowers, there are other guys you will see contributing.
Along with the cornerbacks in a fierce battle for playing time, the safety group tries to build on the Spartan tradition of not only having excellent defenses, but also routinely top-level secondaries.
When Michigan State was in the process of winning Big Ten titles under Dantonio, the secondary took on the identity of the No Fly Zone, something Tressel now insists on. In fact, he sees this season just as a continuation of that, but also as creating a new identity.
That, along with a new staff, has generally led to urgency among the players. Everyone starts from scratch, and everyone has that in their game.
The hunger there certainly, said Tressel. That’s one of the great things about having some new coaches. If you were a quote put out next in line, nothing is guaranteed. The new coaches that come in don’t necessarily see you as the next in line. They don’t see a rule. They see a group of guys and they have to find out who is the best. So I think it has been great motivation and added a sense of urgency to anyone on the defensive.
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