Michigan State mailbag: Is it too soon for staff changes in football?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

What a time to bring back the mailbag.

Things aren’t exactly going smoothly around Michigan State these days, as the football team has fallen on hard times, losing two in a row in ugly fashion.

Scottie Hazelton's defense is allowing 392.5 yards per game, which ranks 83rd in the country.

Fans are calling for coaches to be fired and changes to be made as the Spartans try to salvage their season. Meanwhile, the basketball team started practicing this week and already is short-handed, leading some to wonder if the football team missing a bowl game could free up some bodies to come help Tom Izzo’s team.

It’s all in here, and we do our best to provide some answers in this week’s mailbag.

Question: Is it scheme or is it personnel? – @daveholz

Answer: This might not be what most fans want to hear and it certainly won’t pacify those who simply want coaches fired, but my belief is Michigan State’s problems lie mostly with personnel. The Spartans have changed coverages at times the last two weeks – from different zones to man-to-man – and almost none of it has worked. They’ve blitzed heavy and then not as much. Still, very little has worked outside of some decent sack numbers against overmatched opponents in the first two weeks.

The bottom line is the film shows on a fairly regular basis where the scheme would have been fine but the execution has not – and that’s on both sides of the ball. Whether a defensive back is not aligned properly, a linebacker hesitates to fill a gap or a wide receiver reads the defense wrong and runs the incorrect route, it’s all taking place. Now, there could be an argument the coaches are not doing a good job of “coaching up” the personnel, but that would not indicate a scheme problem.

Q. Any talk of a new scheme on defense? – @StephenSanders_

A. This essentially follows the same line as the previous question, but defensively I wouldn’t expect drastic changes at this point. First off, it’s not exactly easy to change the identity of a defense – or offense, for that matter – in the middle of the season. And if you’ve paid close attention, there have been tweaks to the scheme, namely more three-linebacker sets than we’re used to seeing, though some of that is about the matchup and the fact Minnesota is a good running team.

It’s also important to point out how short-handed the defense is. Coaches hate to use it as an excuse and we hear all the time about the “next man up,” but let’s be honest, there’s a reason most guys are the next man – they’re not at the level of whoever is starting in front of them. Since the opening game, Michigan State, at varying points, has been without linebacker Darius Snow, safety Xavier Henderson, tackle Jacob Slade, end Jeff Pietrowski, end Khris Bogle and tackle Simeon Barrow. Snow and Henderson are the long-term deals, but Slade has missed two games and Pietrowski nearly as much. Take the top five to six players off any defense and odds are there will be struggles.

It sounds boring and cliché, but what Michigan State needs to improve are the basics – tackling, alignment, etc. – if it expects any progress.

Q. Will Mel Tucker wait until the end of the year to axe Scottie Hazleton? – @martyhudenko

A. If Tucker does decide to make a change at defensive coordinator, I have a hard time seeing him do it at any other time. If he believed showing Hazelton the door today would give Michigan State a chance to win the Big Ten, I bet he’d do it. The thing is, Tucker knows better and sees the same issues his entire defensive staff does and understands firing Hazelton now, in-season, likely won’t change any of that.

I’m not even sure losing four more games in a row and giving up 500-plus yards and who knows how many points in each of those games changes that, either. What might is if the results remain the same and it looks like guys are starting to quit. That hasn’t been the case. On the contrary, really. So, my bet is any changes Tucker might make would come after the season.

More:Defensive woes the biggest bugaboos in Michigan State's 2-2 start

Q. Worst case scenario, does Mel Tucker seem capable of moving on to new staff members? Loyalty was pretty much the downfall of the great Dantonio. – @MSU_sd4l

A. I’m not sure what has led anyone to believe, at least to this point, that Tucker is unwilling to make a change. While it was never officially deemed a firing, the fact Ron Burton is no longer on staff wasn’t exactly his decision as Tucker eventually hired Marco Coleman and Brandon Jordan to work with the defensive line.

And there’s been other staff turnover, as well, with Mike Tressel, William Peagler and Travares Tillman all leaving, though Tressel’s was a promotion from safeties coach to defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. Bottom line, I’ve seen no evidence Tucker is unwilling to make difficult moves.

Q. Does Mark Dantonio want to clean off the old defensive playbook and finish out the year as defensive coordinator? – @moose_1990

Mark Dantonio retired as Michigan State's head football coach after the 2019 season.

A. I heard someone else mention this and, at the very least, it would make for an interesting story line. Now, the reality is there’s almost no way that would happen. I’m not sure what’s more unlikely, that Tucker would turn to Dantonio or that Dantonio would be interested. After all, retired life seems to be suiting Dantonio quite well.

We’ll throw in one more note on the whole defensive coordinator thing. Remember back when everyone wanted to run off another coordinator by the name of Pat Narduzzi? Those first three seasons were rough, but patience paid off. I’m not saying that’s what happens with Hazelton, but a little patience might be warranted.

Q. Is it possible that Michigan State is the third-best team in the nation in football this year? – @MitchBeeee

A. Obviously, we’re having a little fun here. But it’s fair to say that both Washington and Minnesota are good teams. Perhaps, very good teams. I can’t imagine another team besides the Gophers winning the Big Ten West and would anyone be surprised if the Huskies end up in the Pac-12 title game?

None of that excuses the way Michigan State has played the last two weeks, but it’s not like the Spartans just got whipped by a couple of FCS teams.

Q. Am I a bad person for thinking that if MSU doesn't make a bowl game, it might save the basketball team's NCAA appearance streak? I mean, the body shortage is pretty bad. – @a_votapek

A. It took me a minute to figure out what was being asked, but we’re talking about Keon Coleman and Maliq Carr joining the basketball team earlier than usual, say early December, considering the football team won’t be prepping for a bowl game.

I think it’s fair to say, if Coleman opts to play hoops again, that he could offer some spot minutes, maybe even a small part of the rotation if necessary. He does play at a position of depth, but right now, that depth is already being tested with Jaden Akins and Malik Hall sidelined. Both should be OK by the time the season starts, but any further injuries and Coleman could be valuable.

As for Carr, well, if he was 6-8 or 6-9, maybe he’d help, as well. But at 6-5, it’s hard to see him providing valuable front-court minutes.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau