'The pieces are there': Michigan State football out to prove doubters wrong
Indianapolis — Xavier Henderson has a message for the rest of the Big Ten: Just wait until Sept. 3.
That’s the day Michigan State kicks off the 2021 season, one that just happens to start with a Big Ten game that also happens to be against Northwestern, last season’s West Division champion.
Add in the Spartans are coming off a 2-5 season, have a full-fledged quarterback battle and have significantly overhauled the roster, and expectations outside of East Lansing aren’t exactly high. In fact, in a media poll conducted by Cleveland.com just before the start of Big Ten media days, the Spartans were picked to finish last in the East — by a wide margin.
Of course, Henderson, the senior who will be tasked with bringing along a young secondary, has no time for the negative vibes.
“I'll be honest with you, I have no idea what people are saying outside, nor do I really care, honestly,” Henderson said. “Because it's about us. It's about the dudes in the building. And you guys will be able to see Sept. 3. A Friday night game, should be fun. Y'all will be able to see. We’re going to work hard, we’re going to be tough, we’re going to hit and we'll see what that brings.”
It’s fair that Henderson and his teammates will dismiss any outside doubt when it comes to what will take place on the field in the fall. However, it’s also fair to be skeptical about what the Spartans will look like when the season begins.
The way last season went was enough of a struggle, but with 19 players joining the roster through the transfer portal and another 18 freshmen coming in as part of the 2021 recruiting class, it’s hard to know just what coach Mel Tucker and his staff will be working with.
Tucker, of course, is convinced the Spartans are in position to make significant gains this fall, even if doubt lingers around the rest of the Big Ten.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were a year ago in terms of knowing our players,” said Tucker, who hadn’t met most of his players in person until just weeks before the season. “I feel like we know who we have, what they can do, their strengths and weaknesses. We know our roster, we know our players, even the newcomers and the freshmen. We know where they are at this point.
“We do have a chip on our shoulder, but we’ve got a lot to prove and we have to prove it to ourselves every day. We’ve got to get better.”
And Tucker doesn’t want anyone giving him a pass, either, based on a tumultuous first year at the helm of the Spartans. From a late start to COVID shutdowns, Tucker was behind the 8-ball for most of the year.
However, he brushed off any idea that the woes of a season ago should get wiped away.
“We’ve never made any excuses, ever,” Tucker said. “No excuses, no explanations. Whatever happened last season is not being swept under the rug. We evaluate it and then we own it, and then we move forward.”
That’s what Michigan State must do now. The Spartans will report for preseason camp on Aug. 4 and begin practice the next day. It’s true, the team that will assemble early next month has a different look, but there’s confidence that group will have talent that was lacking last season.
The Spartans hit the transfer portal hard, bringing in high-level players at cornerback, linebacker, defensive end and running back that should all contribute. From running back Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest) to defensive end Drew Jordan (Duke) to linebacker Quavaris Crouch (Tennessee) to cornerback Ronald Williams (Alabama), the newcomers will be counted on to perform.
And the Spartans will need veterans like wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor as well as Henderson and senior end Drew Beesley on defense to make it all come together.
The goal is for Michigan State to end the season where some of its players began on Friday — Lucas Oil Stadium, site of not only the Big Ten Championship game, but the national title game.
“I definitely do believe the pieces are there,” said Beesley, who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten last year. “What we’ve got to do as players is pay attention to those details, execute the game plan and then, when everything falls into place, good things happen for us. We were able to do that in two games last season and we’ve proven that we can do that, we just have got to do that on a consistent basis.”
That, clearly, is easier said than done.
The schedule is no picnic and never is in the Big Ten East. There’s home games with Michigan and Penn State with trips to Ohio State and Indiana while games against Rutgers and Maryland are no longer easy wins. The nonconference schedule includes a trip to Miami, a team likely to be ranked in the top 25 by the time the season begins.
In other words, it might be best to temper expectations — at least for now.
On a larger scale, though, Tucker is confident in the direction of the program, one he’s always wanted.
“Michigan State has been my dream job since 1997,” said Tucker, who began at MSU as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban. “It's not just another opportunity for me and for us in East Lansing.
“This is a dream come true and we need to make it work. Our fans, 550,000-plus living alumni, our former players, the Spartan Dawgs, they deserve winning football that’s tough, physical, relentless. That's what our fans deserve. That's what Spartan football is all about and it's my job to get that done to get that done.”