EAST LANSING, Mich. — Mel Tucker is among the highest-paid coaches in college football, cashing in on a surprising season two years ago at Michigan State.
The school is hoping to get a better return on its investment this season.
The Spartans were 5-7 in 2022, losing their last two games to fall short of being bowl-eligible, and a melee in the Michigan Stadium tunnel marred the entire year.
"Oftentimes you have to get kicked in the face before you can be great," Tucker said. "We have a chip on our shoulder. No one was happy with the way the season unfolded, especially there the last couple games. It was very disappointing. We're just hungry."
Tucker inherited a shaky program when he replaced the retired Mark Dantonio and it showed during a 2-5, pandemic-shortened season and in the following NFL draft when the program didn't have one player selected for the first time in 80 years.
"That goes to show you the state of the depth and talent in the program," Tucker said.
With the help of breakout star running back Kenneth Walker, the Spartans won 11 games in 2021. Tucker was given a raise by rich boosters during that season in the hopes he would stay and not go to LSU or the NFL. His 10-year, $95 million contract drew widespread attention.
No one expected him to sustain that level of success, but losing seven games and having players suspended for a postgame brawl at Michigan Stadium was certainly unexpected.
Tucker said an NFL scout who recently watched the team practice marveled at the level of talent within the program relative to previous teams.
"We have competition at every single position," Tucker said. "No doubt, it's the most talent we've had top to bottom on our roster."
The Spartans are also confident that they're more cohesive, taking advantage of team-building activities facilitied by an outside firm and opportunities the players put together themselves.
"It feels like a new team," quarterback Katin Hauser said. "New energy."
Payton Thorne, a two-year starter, transferred to Auburn last spring after Tucker made it very clear the quarterback job was up for grabs.
Noah Kim and Houser are competing to take the first snap. Kim threw one touchdown in three games last season in his third year of college, and Houser threw two passes in one game last year as a highly touted freshman from California.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
All-Big Ten linebacker Cal Halady leads the defense after making a conference-high 10 tackles per game last year and finishing with 120, the most by a player at the school since All-America linebacker Greg Jones in 2009.
Khary Crump, the defensive back who swung his helmet at a Michigan player after last year's game, has been reinstated . He is practicing while serving his Big Ten-issued, eight-game suspension this year.
Crump was one of seven Spartans on the team suspended and charged, but he was the only one on the team that faced a felony. That charge was later dismissed in an agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanors.
"He stayed the course," Tucker said. "He's supported by his teammates and by the coaching staff."
Tucker bristled at Big Ten media day when asked if the rivalry with the Wolverines should be reigned in.
"I don't know how you do that," he said. "There's not a day that's gone by that I haven't heard something about that game."
Michigan State's first four games are at home, starting with a Friday night game on Sept. 1 against Central Michigan and including a Sept. 16 matchup with Washington. The Spartans host Michigan on Oct. 21, play at Ohio State on Nov. 11 and face Penn State on Nov. 25 at Ford Field in Detroit.
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