Improving special teams one of MSU's 'biggest concerns' under Mel Tucker
Whenever Michigan State gets back on the football field, most of the attention likely will fall on the quarterback position. With three-year starter Brian Lewerke graduated, the battle to replace him will be the most-watched heading into the 2020 season under first-year head coach Mel Tucker.
But there’s plenty of holes to fill for the Spartans and questions to be answered, especially on special teams. That unit is being run by Ross Els, who is doubling as linebackers coach and came from Colorado with Tucker.
He’s eager to jump in, however, with everyone back home and unable to get on the field, Els is unsure of how things will shake out when Michigan State opens its season against Northwestern.
“We do have some specialists positions to fill and that’s one of my biggest concerns right now,” Els said. “I don't know who our punt returner is going to be. I don't know our punter is going to be. I’m assuming Matt (Coghlin) will come back 100 percent and be ready to do a great job with our kicking, but I don't know our kickoff guy is going to be. So that's going to be interesting.”
Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans struggled in the return game. They haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since RJ Shelton took one back against Penn State in 2014, and the last punt return for a touchdown came from Keyshawn Martin against Wisconsin in 2011.
In 2019, Michigan State ranked 82nd in the nation in kickoff return yardage and 101st in punt returns.
Last season’s primary return men have graduated, leaving the door wide open. Expect the likes of wide receiver Jalen Nailor and running back Anthony Williams to continue to get opportunities along with sophomore Julian Barnett. However, there’s sure to be more names pop up.
“I have absolutely no idea what that's going be,” Els admitted. “When we get to that stage of it, we’ll have a list of guys and maybe after a couple weeks of practice I hope we can narrow that down.”
The competition could be just as wide-ranging when the Spartans determine who will handle kickoffs and who the next punter will be. Cole Hahn, who will be a junior this season, was the primary kickoff specialist last season though Evan Morris got a shot in a couple games as a true freshmen. Both should be in the mix this season, as well.
At punter, the Spartans are filling another hole as Jake Hartbarger is gone after six seasons in the program. It was expected that Jack Bouwmeester would take over after redshirting last season, but he opted recently to return home to Australia. That leaves walk-ons Tyler Hunt and Bryce Baringer on the roster — both punted in 2018 when Hartbarger was injured — while UTEP’s Mitchell Crawford said last month that he will be a graduate transfer with the Spartans.
“Great question, no answer,” Els said. “Never seen a punt. Don't know who's going to be the guy lining up there. I don't even know if Jack would've been the guy. I have no idea. Again, I haven't seen these guys punt any punts yet. I guarantee that if we have to punt, we will have somebody back there to kick the ball; I just don't know who it is yet.”
At least one specialist seems set in stone.
Coghlin will be back for his senior season after making 22 of 32 field goals last season. He missed four kicks from inside 40 yards and had a long of 47 yards. It was a tough year for Coghlin, who opened the year making his first seven field goals but then went 4-for-11 over a five-game stretch.
“Matt had a great year two years ago and (last) year, at least on paper, not as good,” Els said. “But we have a lot of confidence in Matt. He’s going to line up there, he’s going to win some games for us. Games in this league are going to come down to the wire.
“He's a leader in that room, too. That's what I like about Matt. When I first met him, he goes, ‘Coach, put this room on my shoulders. I'll take care of these guys and get these guys ready to go.’ So we're excited with Matt's future.”
Regardless of who ends up filling all of the specialist roles, Els is determined to make the special teams as productive as the rest of the team. That means the entire roster will be considered.
“One of the great things about working for a guy like Mel Tucker is he understands the importance of special teams,” Els said. “Working with him for the year I did at Colorado, he never said, ‘Don't use this guy.’ Now we're going to use common sense on offense, defense and special teams to make sure that they're not overplayed. But that doesn't mean that special teams will take the backseat.
“Everybody's up for grabs. Everybody's going to be available.”