A breakdown of MSU football’s new coaching staff

Here’s who is in, and who is out on the Michigan State  football coaching staff

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Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker. (Photo: MSU Athletic Communications)

Joe Dandron, Station Manager

Now that Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker has begun to round out his staff, after being named head coach on Feb. 12, it’s time to take a look at who is in and who is out from the Mark Dantonio regime and how the Spartans could look this coming fall. 

Tucker began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban at, ironically, MSU. He then worked for a myriad of powerhouse programs, with a few stops in the NFL sprinkled along the way. 

The Cleveland Heights native went 5-7 last year at Colorado and has always been a defensive-minded coach. So who will be helping Tucker run the show?

The only holdovers from Dantonio’s staff are defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who will move into a defensive assistant role and Ron Burton, who is holding his position as defensive line coach.

This is who is new to East Lansing.

Jay Johnson: offensive coordinator

Quite possibly the most important hire of the off-season for Tucker, Johnson left Colorado as well to become the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at MSU. 

Johnson replaces one of the more scrutinized positional coaches in the country in Dave Warner, who was offensive coordinator this past season for an offense that averaged 22.6 points per game, only ahead of Rutgers and Northwestern in the Big Ten. 

The base scheme for Johnson’s offense is a no-huddle, spread offense, with a single back in the pistol more often than not. It comes in a tight and wide package depending on down and distance.

MSU ran a ton of pro-style scheme, under-center formations with Brian Lewerke and Connor Cook at quarterback. This at times held back the athletes MSU has had on the outside, so the new offense will allow athletes like Elijah Collins, Julian Barnett and Jalen Nailor to make big time plays.

Chunk plays could become more common with the type of athletes Tucker will recruit and that’s something that has been missing since the Spartans went to the 2016 College Football Playoff. 

Scottie Hazelton: defensive coordinator

Hazelton was the defensive coordinator at Kansas State, as Tucker poached another Power Five program’s assistant. From Colorado, Hazelton coached the linebackers and was the defensive coordinator at K-State in 2019. 

He previously coached in multiple defensive assistant positions at USC, Nevada, Wyoming and was an assistant linebackers coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2014-2016. 

His base defense is the nickel, with a four-man defensive front; a 4-2-5 base, which stems from the NFL schemes he saw in Jacksonville and is more of a modern style of defense that catered to the up-tempo offenses of the Big XII conference.

K-State held offenses to 368 yards per game, its lowest total as a team since 2013 and only gave up 1.5 first downs per game from penalties, an area that the MSU defense struggled in last season.

With Tressel as an assistant, Harlon Barnett returning to coach defensive backs and Ron Burton sticking around to coach the defensive line, this could be a better unit in 2020, regardless of the fact that the Spartans are losing many starters to the NFL and graduation.

Harlon Barnett: defensive backs

The ability to recruit and develop mid-level recruits was a huge part of the oft-discussed 36-5 stretch from 2013-2015 that saw MSU go to back-to-back Cotton Bowls and win the Rose Bowl against Stanford.

Barnett coached Trae Waynes, Darqueze Dennard and the ‘No-fly-zone’ group that was the base of a strong defense for the Spartans and really set the tone when it came to competing with those blue bloods in the Big Ten East and in the non-conference schedule.

Recruiting once again comes into play here. Barnett is a guy who develops talent and also can help the Spartans win a lot of in-state recruiting battles that haven’t been working for them recently.

Despite a down couple of years at Florida State – which could have more to do with Willie Taggart – MSU fans should be excited about having Barnett back on staff. 

Courtney Hawkins: wide receivers

Hawkins was a second-round pick in the 1992 NFL Draft out of MSU and is a Flint, Michigan native. The former Spartan has spent the previous eight years as Flint Beecher’s athletic director and football coach. Once again, a hire that MSU fans should in no way be upset about; a guy who has an NFL pedigree and presence in one of the major athletic regions in the state.

That’s a big time hire for Tucker who is going to try to establish himself this year as a presence in the state. With Hawkins and Barnett on staff, it’ll be important to see how receivers like Julian Barnett, Jalen Nailor and Trent Gillison, a tight end, will develop. Those three could play major roles on offense as Cody White, Darrell Stewart and Matt Seybert have departed because of graduation or the NFL Draft.  Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed will also step in immediately to contribute. 

Barnett showed a twitch and ability with the ball in his hands that not a lot of MSU receivers have shown in recent years. The dude can play either defensive back or wide receiver on this MSU team, or even both, because of depth. Hawkins has a talented unit that if healthy could be either a lot better or just as good as last season’s receiver room.

Chris Kapilovic: offensive line/running game coordinator

Another hire from the Colorado staff that Tucker left behind when he went to MSU, Kapilovic’s offensive line unit ranked No. 54 in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Health has been the biggest issue by far for MSU over the previous two years. It caused Cole Chewins to miss the better part of those two years and created a revolving door at nearly every spot on the offensive line except right tackle, which was filled in 2019 by Jordan Reid. 

MSU prides itself on strong offensive line play. It is the heart of many Big Ten teams’ play styles. Getting the most out of J.D. Duplain, Devontae Dobbs, Luke Campbell and Nick Samac will go a long way in providing this unit with either some quality starters or depth at positions that struggled. 


Three of those four, the exception being Dobbs because of sample size, all played well when called upon. Samac and Duplain specifically played well at center and guard down the stretch as the line showed a lot more cohesiveness in the final few games of the year. 

Elijah Collins, who is one of the top returning rushers in the conference, helps make this unit’s lives easier, too. 

Kapilovic has something to work with in East Lansing. Now it is time to see if he can make something happen.

Ted Gilmore: tight ends

Gilmore has 25-plus years of experience in the college and NFL ranks as a positional coach. At one point, he was the wide receivers coach at USC and most recently coached receivers at Wisconsin. 

Poached away from one of the stronger receiver groups in the Big Ten, Gilmore brings tutelage that is inescapable as MSU tries to find some consistency at tight end. This has always been an important position whether it be in pass or run blocking schemes or catching the football. 

Trent Gillison had a big game in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl to close out the year, but now it will be time to see if he can blossom into a true No. 1 option at the position under Gilmore.

Will Peagler: running backs

Peagler has a stud at halfback to work with in Collins. Anthony Williams Jr. is a good No. 2 option as well and Brandon Wright misses football, according to his Twitter.

Peagler is the youngest of the new hires at 34 years old and is on a Jay Johnson-led offense for the fifth time in his career. He has experience in some major programs, i.e. Georgia, and has worked with not only backs but also offensive line units, too. This could help as he tries to make a name for himself in the coaching world.

Ross Els: special teams coordinator / linebackers coach

Els was the inside linebackers coach from 2017-2019 under Tucker at Colorado and also spent time as special teams coordinator for much of 2019 during the Buffs’ 5-7 season.

He was at Nebraska and Purdue previously as a positional coach and defensive coordinator with the Boilermakers. The Cornhuskers were 37-16 in his four years at the school as linebackers coach.

You can follow Joe Dandron on Twitter @JosephDandronMI, contact him at [email protected]