Mike Tressel ready to ride solo coaching Spartans defense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Mike Tressel

East Lansing – Mike Tressel knows what it’s like calling the plays.

Of course, the last time he did that he was calling the offense in 2001 at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Back then, Tressel was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the Division III school.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. After three years as Michigan State’s co-defensive coordinator, Tressel takes over the role on his own after the departure of Harlon Barnett for Florida State.

“Obviously, Coach Barnett and I were a team so there will be some things that fall a little bit more on my plate, but I’ll be coaching the linebackers, which I absolutely love,” Tressel said. “I’ll be putting together the game plan, like I was a big part of doing before. I’ll be scripting the plays just like we did before. Certainly, calling the plays will be exciting and it’ll be fun and I feel good about that. But, it’s not going to change that much.

“Again, this topic will come back over and over. We run the defense that we run and that won’t change.”

That speaks to the continuity Michigan State has had over the 11 years with Mark Dantonio as coach. The Spartans became one of the top defenses in the nation under former coordinator Pat Narduzzi and hardly skipped a beat heading into the 2015 season when Tressel and Barnett took over after Narduzzi became the head coach at Pittsburgh.

The Spartans reached the College Football Playoff that season, took a step back in 2016 and rebounded with 10 wins in 2017.

Much of that success can be attributed to Tressel’s work with not just the defense, but specifically with the linebackers. Tressel has coached for the better part of his 11 seasons at Michigan State and three before that with Dantonio at Cincinnati.

Nineteen Spartan linebackers have earned All-Big Ten honors under Tressel while Greg Jones, Denicos Allen and Max Bullough have been named All-Americans.

Michigan State has finished in the top 11 of the FBS in rushing defense six of the past seven seasons, checking in at No. 2 in 2017 (95.3 yards per-game). In two of the three seasons (2015, 2017) that Tressel shared the coordinating duties with Barnett, Michigan State ranked in the FBS Top 25 in rushing defense and scoring defense (2015, 2017). Since 2007, the Spartans have led the Big Ten in rushing defense five times and have ranked in the FBS Top 10 in total defense on five occasions (2011-14, 2017)

“It’s a great opportunity for me, but the main thing is the pattern, the philosophy, the blueprint that we’ve had here, that’ll stay the same,” Tressel said. “We have a lot of returning players. A player-led team is much better than a coach-led team, so it’s nice to have some great guys coming back to lead the team.”

The defense returns all but two starters, including linebacker Joe Bachie, who was named team MVP and led the Spartans with 100 tackles.

Bachie could be the next All-American, but the key to Tressel is continuing to push. Tressel believes he has the right guys on the field as he moves into his role as the sole coordinator.

“It’s exciting. There’s no doubt it’s exciting,” Tressel said. “I’m a competitive person, so I love the challenge. I’m looking forward to it. But, I also know this: It’s not what I know, it’s not even what our staff knows, it’s what those players know. We just need to recruit those guys that are football junkies and leaders and we’ll keep playing Michigan State defense.”

As for calling those plays? Well, Tressel won’t be orchestrating the offense, but he’s confident Michigan State’s defensive philosophy will remain the same.

“Yeah, you know, the last time I was a sole coordinator I was an offensive coordinator,” Tressel said. “That was a little bit earlier in my career. I’ve called plays on that side of the ball as well. The bottom line is this: Our defense has been known to be aggressive. I think our guys like that. We need to play to our guys’ strength. That’s what I’ll always try to do and ask guys to do what they do best.”