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Summer Scheming: Michigan State Spartans Football

Miami heads to East Lansing, MI to face the new-look Spartans

NCAA Football: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State Spartans football coach Mel Tucker is heading into his 3rd job in three years. Tucker was previously the head football coach for one season at Colorado, where he guided the Buffaloes to a 5-7 record in year one. Prior to Colorado, Tucker was the defensive coordinator at Georgia, and the assistant head coach at Alabama, after a decade long career in the NFL.

Tucker, an Ohio native, played defensive back at Wisconsin from 1990-1994, and was a graduate assistant at Michigan State from 1997-1998 to start his coaching career. He was a national championship winning coach while at Ohio State in 2002, and again in 2015 in his lone season with the Crimson Tide.

According to Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ rankings, the Spartans are 45th overall in the country, while ranking 106th on offense and 21st on defense. Tucker, like Mark Dantonio whom he replaces, is a defensive-minded head coach. Miami is ranked 23rd preseason by SP+, 62nd on offense and 9th on defense. In 2019, the Colorado Buffs stayed about the same in overall SP+ from the year prior (80 vs 81) but Tucker did improve the offense from 85th to 51st in one season.

MSU will start the 2020 preseason with five players on the Athlon preseason All-Big Ten list.


The Spartan’s first All-Big Ten preseason player is on the second team defense. Linebacker Antjuan Simmons. Simmons put up stellar numbers in 2019 making 90 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, and posting 3.5 sacks on the season. 2020 will be Simmons senior season and a chance to impress the NFL Draft scouts.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Michigan State vs Wake Forest Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On the Athlon 3rd team offense is running back Elijah Collins. In an anemic offense (only 22 PPG) Collins ran for 998 yards and five touchdowns last season. The offense will miss quarterback Brian Lewerke, but do return experienced backup Rocky Lombardi and prep star Theo Day. Whoever wins the QB job, they’ll be without MSU’s top three receivers from 2019. Sophomore Tre Mosley does return after a freshman season where he caught 21 balls for 216 yards and a score.

Also on the 3rd team is defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, Panasiuk has 15.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in his career at MSU. On the Athlon 4th team are offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis and placekicker Matt Coghlin. Coghlin was a perfect 31-of-31 on PAT’s in 2019, and finished 22-of-32 on field goals.

Scheme on O (Colorado)

Jay Johnson has followed Mel Tucker from Colorado to Michigan State and will use an NCAA Offense. That means Johnson will run 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), and many of the typical concepts you see around the country on a Saturday. Colorado used zone and gap blocking schemes in their run game.

Above, you can get an idea of the duo-esque run scheme (hard to tell with that many Trojans up at the line of scrimmage) the Buffs used against USC. What is duo? It’s a Clemson Tigers staple so if Miami is planning on getting ready for the ACC Championship Game they had better learn to stop duo sooner rather than in December (or May!)

As you can see below, Duo typically requires a base block from the left tackle (when running it left), combination blocks from the left guard and center and another combo from the right guard and right tackle. The H or tight end will cut off the defensive end. The back’s aiming point is the centers right butt cheek.

Below, another run concept from the Buffs was an inside zone read with a wrapping h-back as a lead blocker for the QB. I absolutely love the wrapping H (or arc’ing when play side) as a lead blocker for the QB. In order to combat the read option teams, defensive coordinators began running ‘scrape exchanges’ between their defensive end and linebacker.

A scrape exchange occurs when the defensive end and linebacker switch gap responsibilities post-snap. In the stacked images below, you can see an inside zone read with the H wrapping up to the alley (between the slot receiver “J” and the LT). In the early IZ Read days, the defensive end would either “squeeze” and chase the RB, or “sit” and defend against the QB. Either way, the defense had one less athlete involved in the play compared to a typical handoff.

Defenses had to adjust, so they began to tell their D-End to chase the RB because any smart DC would rather have the QB with the ball. If you knock a RB out of the game there’s always 1-2 more waiting, that’s typically not the case with QB’s and as a defense you want to hit the QB as much as possible. However, you can’t just squeeze the DE and not have someone assigned to the QB. That’s where the scrape exchange became such a weapon. The more mobile LB would be on the QB post-snap. This gives the QB a “pull” read (or “keeper” per the jackleg on TV) and then he’s hit in the face by a LB.

So OC’s had to get more creative. They started to wrap the H for that linebacker, or a safety playing hard and fast in the box against the run. Now the QB has a lead blocker and can get to the 3rd level (defensive backs) before contact.

Scheme on D (Colorado and Kansas State)

It’s safe to assume that Tucker, someone hired by both Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, is going to run a 3-4 base defense. At Colorado, the Buffs based out of a 3-4 and did what Saban and Smart do which is roll down the linebacker and bump the defensive line around to fit that alignment. Something I’ve noticed watching Tuckers’ Colorado defense is that they do a hell of a job getting lined up and adjusting pre-snap to motion against USC and Oregon.

At Kansas State and Wyoming, defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton ran a 4-2-5. So it will be interesting to see what Tucker and Hazelton come up with at MSU. The Spartans have been a 4-2-5 defensive team under former coach Mark Dantonio. It’s also interesting that Hazelton, who knows K-State coach Chris Klieman from their shared time winning an FCS National Championship at North Dakota State would leave Manhattan for East Lansing...

Above, you can see how K-State lined up to a typical 2x2 (2 receivers on each side of the center), 10 personnel picture (one running back, no tight ends). The Wildcats have four down lineman (including that DE who lined up offsides all game) and two inside linebackers. Pre-snap they’re playing a “one high” look (one safety 8+ yards off the line of scrimmage).

Above, all we heard from Manny Diaz and Dan Enos and now Manny Diaz and Rhett Lashlee, is how they’re going to attack space. Well, Hazelton has given plenty of space for Lashlee to work with here. The inside linebacker is far too inside the box to help in the flat, the safety is 9 yards off the slot and the corner is pressed. If that CB is playing man the WR’s job is to release outside and take him with him. Once the CB turns his hips what happens underneath him is the safety’s issue.

The inside WR can run a 10 yard sail, a 5 yard out or a 2-step speed out and attack the space left by the vacating CB. If the CB doesn’t vacate, the QB needs to throw deep and outside. The #1 WR (outside) will be the QB’s first read, with the #2 (slot) being his 2nd read.

Canyonero keys to victory

Miami’s keys to victory over Michigan State are a 3-pronged approach. First, Manny Diaz has to have the team focused and ready to play on the road. The 2020 Miami Hurricanes start off with three straight home games against two Group of 5 schools and a really bad FCS program. The ‘Canes first real test will come on the road, at East Lansing. Can Diaz get Miami up for the game, and focused throughout the week and on game day enough to win on the road in a big game?

Of course the 2nd key is to allow D’Eriq King time to work. Hazelton and Tucker will bring pressure, it’s what 4-2 and 3-4 coaches do. MSU has a talented defense as they always do. The key will be to be able to establish a run game and to keep King healthy and upright.

The 3rd key is going to be to avoid big mistakes on defense and special teams. MSU doesn’t have the offensive weapons to beat Miami but neither did Georgia Tech, Duke, Louisiana Tech or FIU. Giving up big plays like the fake punt to the Yellow Jackets cannot happen. One ACC assistant told me Patke had allowed the gunner to go downfield unblocked on short-field punts (punts that were snapped from around midfield and in towards the end zone) and everyone in the ACC saw a fake coming, except Miami.

During games, if you aren’t seeing what you teach being played out on the field- TEACH IT BETTER. You either coach it or allow it. Stop allowing D.J. Ivey to not cover the gunner, or teach it better.

Prediction: Miami by 1