Michigan State football's Mel Tucker finalist for AFCA national coach of year

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  • Mel Tucker
    American football coach
  • Duffy Daugherty
    American football player and coach (1915-1987)

Michigan State football’s Mel Tucker was named the Division I Region 3 Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association on Monday.

That means the Spartans’ second-year leader is one of five finalists for the national coach of the year award presented Jan. 9 at the AFCA annual convention in San Antonio, Texas. The others are Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Arkansas’ Sam Pittman, Texas-San Antonio’s Jeff Traylor and Utah State’s Blake Anderson.

Tucker, named Big Ten Coach of the Year by both the league’s coaches and media last Tuesday, guided a major turnaround and has No. 10 MSU 10-2 and preparing to play No. 12 Pitt in the Peach Bowl 2021 on Dec. 30. It is the first bowl game in three seasons as a head coach for Tucker, who went 2-5 in his COVID-shortened debut with the Spartans in 2020.

Only two MSU coaches have won the AFCA national award: Biggie Munn in 1952 and Duffy Daugherty in 1955.

Tucker became the fastest coach in MSU history to win 10 games in a season and joined Mark Dantonio (six times), Daugherty and Nick Saban as the only ones in school history to win 10 in a year.

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Fertile recruiting

Tight end/H-back Connor Heyward is one of six Spartans from Georgia, along with running back Jordon Simmons (Marietta), defensive tackle Simeon Barrow (Grovetown), offensive lineman James Ohonba (Stockbridge), defensive end Drew Jordan (Suwanee) and wide receiver Ricky White (Marietta), who entered the transfer portal Monday. MSU will play Pitt at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

“It'll be nice for those guys to to get to go home and play in front of their families,” sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne said Sunday. “I'm sure they'll have a lot of people, a lot of extended family there at the game.”

Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral is sacked by Michigan State's Simeon Barrow during the first quarter at SHI Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021 in Piscataway, N.J.
Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral is sacked by Michigan State's Simeon Barrow during the first quarter at SHI Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021 in Piscataway, N.J.

While MSU began that Georgia pipeline during Dantonio’s tenure, including Darqueze Dennard and Keith Mumphery, Tucker and his staff also have focused extensively on the Peach State.

MSU has 2022 commitments from three-star tight end Jack Nickel (Alpharetta), two three-star safeties in Malik Spencer (Buford) and Quavian Carter (Leesburg), and three-star offensive lineman Kristian Phillips (Conyers).

Tucker, defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2016-18, believes the trip to Atlanta will be a boost for recruiting in the southern state.

“It's going to help us quite a bit,” Tucker said Sunday. “We recruit heavily in the state of Georgia, and all the way down to south Georgia. We're going to be very visible, and it's going to be great for our program, great exposure for recruiting.

“We saw that when we played down at Miami earlier this season. We had a very good showing, and there was a lot of excitement generated in South Florida about the Spartans and Spartan football. We got a very good response and made a lot of good connections because of that game. This will be very similar.”

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Tending to home front

With early signing period for the 2022 recruits opening Dec. 15, Tucker said he and his staff “will be out on the road recruiting this week.”

That means it will be another week before the Spartans fully dive in on dissecting Pitt.

“Our players will get three lifts in and running sessions,” Tucker said. “And also they'll get some scheme work in and some things like that, some Xs and Os work and some walk-throughs, some self-directed things as well. That's what we're going to do this week.”

One of the other missions with no heavy contact practice is to get players healthy. The hope is to rest and mend the banged-up Spartans who have tried to play through injuries, such as running back Kenneth Walker III (left foot) and kicker Matt Coghlin (right hip), and return key cogs who have been out, including Barrow (undisclosed), receiver Jalen Nailor (right hand), and linebacker Quavaris Crouch (right knee).

Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor (8) and tight end Kameron Allen (82) high-five fans to celebrate their 37-33 win over Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor (8) and tight end Kameron Allen (82) high-five fans to celebrate their 37-33 win over Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.

“We don't really talk injuries too much, but dudes are just gonna get healthier,” said safety Xavier Henderson, who has been dealing with a shoulder injury since the Ohio State loss Nov. 20. “I know (Walker) was a little banged up towards the end of season and I was a little banged up in that last game. And we got some other guys – everybody's a little banged up, really. It just gives people an opportunity to get healthy and almost hopefully to 100% if you can, which is a hard thing.”

Henderson, who said he did not plan to return next year, also left the door open for taking advantage of the COVID waiver for a fifth season.

Decisions, decisions

Walker and receiver Jayden Reed said after MSU’s 30-27 win over Penn State on Nov. 27 that both planned to play in whatever bowl game the Spartans got invited to.

Tucker and Thorne said they do not know of any MSU players who plan to sit out the postseason practices and game against Pitt to protect their bodies and prepare for the April NFL draft.

“I know Ken will be playing. He loves the game. He just loves to play, and he's a super competitor,” Thorne said. “And I know that if there's a game being played, he's gonna want to play. So he'll be playing, I'm sure. And then I think everybody else is playing. I haven't heard anybody else is not playing, so I would assume that everybody would be playing.”

That includes seniors such as Heyward and underclassmen like Reed and Walker, who would have to announce their intention to leave MSU a year early.

Michigan State's Jayden Reed, left, and running back Kenneth Walker III celebrate Reed's 20-yard touchdown catch on fourth down against Penn State during the fourth quarter Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. The Spartans won, 30-27.
Michigan State's Jayden Reed, left, and running back Kenneth Walker III celebrate Reed's 20-yard touchdown catch on fourth down against Penn State during the fourth quarter Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. The Spartans won, 30-27.

“In a game like this, I feel like this is different than a lower-level bowl game, where guys would maybe go ahead and just opt out, because you're not really playing for too much,” Thorne said. “But I feel like this is a game that you can say, ‘We're playing for something.’”

Tucker, who spent 10 years in the NFL, understands why players might opt to sit out a bowl game.

“It's really the individual decisions for the players, typically as they're guys that may be dealing with some type of injuries or that may be deciding whether they're going to come back for another year or leave. And if they're going to leave, then they have to make a decision – ‘Well, does it help me to play in this game or not, and what is the risk, what is the reward?’ So those are decisions that they make.

“They're business decisions, and whatever decisions our players make, I will support them 100%.“

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's Mel Tucker finalist for AFCA national coach of year

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