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Mike Tressel: Foundation in place to build another 'great' defense at Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

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 Michigan State’s defensive staff, leading the linebackers for the bulk of that time while also serving as co-defensive coordinator for three seasons and as sole coordinator the past two seasons.

Michael Dowell (10) is part of an experienced group of safeties returning for Michigan State.

During that stretch — all 13 seasons with Mark Dantonio — the Spartans defense has been among the nation’s best. With Tressel on board, Michigan State ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense and rushing defense on six occasions (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018). Four of those times, Michigan State also ranked among the nation’s top 10 in scoring defense (2011, 2012, 2013, 2018). Michigan State also led the Big Ten in rushing defense six times, including No. 1 in the FBS in 2014 and 2018.

So, almost two weeks into practice as Michigan State’s safeties coach under Mel Tucker, it’s worth noting what Tressel has seen from the defense as a whole, and it’s an encouraging view.

“I'm excited about the development of the defense,” Tressel said. “Our guys have foundation, obviously, to build on and a belief in great defense here. But they're learning some new techniques, learning some new ways to skin a cat and believe it, so I'm excited about that.”

It helps, too, that Tucker’s history is in building defenses and he’s put together a staff — including coordinator Scottie Hazelton, Ron Burton leading the defensive line, Ross Els coaching the linebackers and Harlon Barnett with the cornerbacks — that has a proven track record of success.

“Everybody has a little bit different taste or tweak or coaching point,” Tressel said, “and it's been good to hear that stuff. I've been growing as a coach, for sure.”

Tressel is growing in a new role, too. While he has knowledge of his current position group, he’s primarily been a linebackers coach throughout his career.

The return of Barnett, who as co-coordinator with Tressel for three seasons and coached the secondary for 11 years under Dantonio, has helped. Tressel said he leans on Barnett’s years of experience in the back end while the longtime coaching partners have the comfort of knowing each other as well as anyone on the staff.

“We love each other like brothers, and that makes it that much easier,” Tressel said.

It’s all allowed Tressel to focus in on a talented safety group a little more than a week away from the season-opener against Rutgers.

The unit is led by junior Xavier Henderson, and after that, there’s quite the battle for starting spots and playing time. Senior Tre Person figures to see plenty of work while sophomore Michael Dowell, redshirt freshman Tate Hallock and junior Emmanuel Flowers are in the mix, as well. So, too, is true freshman Darius Snow.

“I think Xavier's leadership is continuing to step up and his play’s continuing to step up,” Tressel said. “Michael Dowell, Tre Person have had really good falls thus far, so I'm excited about them getting more playing time. Both of them have been on the field a bunch, but then there's some others. Darius Snow, Emmanuel Flowers, there's some other guys you'll see contribute.”

Along with the cornerbacks — where there’s a spirited battle for playing time, as well — the safety group is trying to build on the Spartans’ tradition of not only having outstanding defenses, but routinely having top-level secondaries.

When Michigan State was in the midst of winning Big Ten titles under Dantonio, the secondary took on the identity of the “No Fly Zone,” something Tressel is continuing to push now. In fact, he sees this season simply as a continuation of that as much as creating any sort of new identity.

That, along with a new staff, overall, has created urgency in the players. Everyone is starting from scratch, and that has everyone on their game.

“The hunger’s there, for sure,” Tressel said. “That's one of the great things about having some new coaches. If you were quote, unquote next in line, there's nothing guaranteed. The new coaches rolling in, they don't necessarily see you as next in line. They don't see a line. They see a group of guys and they have to figure out who's best. So, I think it's been great motivation and added a sense of urgency to everybody on the defense.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau