Mel Tucker stokes sense of optimism at Spartans spring game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Earlier this week, as Mel Tucker talked about what he wanted to see from Michigan State’s spring game, he mentioned seeing 90,000 fans in the stands when he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia.

While matching that number was never going to happen — after all, Spartan Stadium seats a little more than 75,000 — it was more about the atmosphere. For lack of a better term, it was about the buzz around the program.

Even with a little fewer than 20,000 in the stands on Saturday on a sunny yet brisk afternoon for mid-April, Tucker believes that buzz was present just months after the Spartans capped off an 11-2 season, marking the biggest single-season turnaround in program history.

Michigan State's Torrell Williams (36) and Dillon Tatum (21) drag down Joseph Martinez after a reception during the scrimmage.

“Football is very important here at Michigan State,” Tucker said, “and the (fans) like what they see from us, just the way we go about our business and how we handle ourselves and the brand of football that we play. It resonates with people and that's what people want to see and they want to see us have success on the field. They want to see us work hard.

“That leads us to just grind it out and have just a relentless attitude. So I really appreciate our fans. They came out today.”

It might not seem like much, but on a day that was far from comfortable in the stands, the turnout was solid. It was well off the 2016 spring game when roughly 51,000 fans were on hand as the Spartans were coming off a three-year run that included two Big Ten championships, wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl and a playoff appearance, but it was better than it has been.

And that is directly attributed to not only the work Tucker and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and in the transfer portal, but what took place on the field last season.

“You can see it,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “You hear it, whether it's on Twitter or really all social media. … It’s definitely going to be different coming off an 11-2 season versus a 2-5 season. So I definitely think there's excitement around the program right now and it's our job to bring more excitement to the program.

“As a team we’ve got to come in every day with the goal to be better than we were last year. We have different goals this year and we’re going to hold ourselves to a high standard.”

That high standard will be easier to achieve with Thorne back running the offense. He threw a program-record 27 touchdowns last year and he’ll have his running mate — wide receiver Jayden Reed — back, as well.

Replacing running back Kenneth Walker III will be the offense’s biggest task heading into next season, and Saturday’s workout allowed the first glimpse of Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger, who looked good on a handful of runs. Redshirt freshman Davion Primm also got plenty of work, as did veterans Elijah Collins, Jordon Simmons and Harold Joiner.

Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker watches over his team during its spring game.

With Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard set to join the team this summer, there’s a chance that running back room changes, but the Spartans still feel confident in who they have heading into the offseason.

“I think that the guys we have right now are solid players,” Thorne said. “You saw Jalen ran the ball well today and we’ve got Jared Broussard coming in and we’re excited about him too. He’s a good guy as well. So you know, it’s going to be a little different.”

The Spartans have also added talent on the defensive side of the ball, many of those players getting extensive work on Saturday.

Defensive end Khris Bogle was active as were linebackers Jacoby Windmon and Aaron Brule. Cornerback Ameer Speed was with the starters as Michigan State hopes to improve on a shaky pass defense from a season ago, and with veterans like Darius Snow and Xavier Henderson back along with some of the best defensive tackles around — Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow leading that group — the Spartans believe they can live up to whatever expectations might be in store this fall.

“It does feel a little different,” Henderson said. “Coming off of a Peach Bowl win … it just feels better and you want to keep going from what you did last year. That’s how we feel and I think the team just really understands Coach Tucker a lot more and how he talks and what he wants to do around the building, on the football field and off, too.

“He was talking about buy-in, and I think I agree that a lot of dudes are just more bought in and we just understand more how to conduct ourselves around here.”

The latest step in that buy-in took place on Saturday. It wasn’t a game, but there was plenty of live scrimmaging to get a feel of where the Spartans are heading into the summer.

Things will change, too, and some players might see the writing on the wall and enter the transfer portal — those conversations will begin next week. There’s also no doubt Tucker and his staff will continue to try and upgrade, namely along the offensive line.

Regardless of who takes the field in September, there is no resting on its laurels for Michigan State.

The Spartans had plenty of big wins and finished No. 9 in the country. But there are bigger goals, and that’s the way Michigan State is heading into next season.

“For me growing up, it’s never been a goal of mine to come ninth in anything,” Thorne said. “It's always ahead. There’s always more. Even if you finish first, there's more. It never stops. If you watch the greats and if you if you learn about the greats and read about the all-time greats, whatever sport it is, it's on to the next. How do they stay in first? How do they elevate more?

“So we're sitting at ninth last year and who knows where we’ll be at in preseason. It doesn't really matter. We’re just looking to win all of our games and it starts with the first one. So we're focused on the summer, we're focused on fall camp after that, and then moving to the season.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau