NFL scouts' evaluations reveal Mel Tucker's Michigan State football rebuild will continue

Rainer Sabin
Detroit Free Press

As Mark Dantonio transformed Michigan State football into a perennial Big Ten contender, the Spartans head coach earned a reputation as a football alchemist.

With stunning regularity, he turned overlooked high school players into bona fide college stars. Jack Conklin, a former walk-on, became an All-American. Le’Veon Bell, a three-star recruit ranked below 1,700 of his peers, emerged as one of the best offensive players in the country. Kirk Cousins, once destined to play in the MAC, developed into an All-Big Ten quarterback.

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There was magic in East Lansing.

And then, poof, it was gone.

The rare finds Dantonio excavated in the past weren’t unearthed in his final seasons. The prospects other programs had bypassed were no longer exceeding their perceived potential. Dantonio’s sorcery had waned, and what remained was a roster not good enough to compete for league titles, as the Spartans were accustomed to doing during the height of his tenure.

That was evident soon after Dantonio stepped down in February 2020 and Mel Tucker was hired as his replacement.

Coach Mel Tucker, right, talks with a Minnesota Vikings scout during Michigan State football's pro day March 24, 2021.

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During a season delayed and interrupted by a pandemic, the Spartans slogged to a 2-5 record and appeared outmanned against several Big Ten opponents. Even a pair of shocking wins over Michigan and Northwestern could be attributed more to MSU’s guile and will than its talent.

The shortcomings Tucker had to overcome became clearer in late April at the NFL draft, where, for the first time since 1940, no Spartans were selected.

What happened during that spring weekend revealed the troubled state of the program and highlighted the challenges of the project Tucker had undertaken when he was hired.

In the second year of his regime, Tucker again will be tested. Twenty-seven players left the team via the transfer portal. Michigan State quickly pivoted and brought in 19 replacements from other programs — 15 of whom are on scholarship.

The roster, in turn, has resembled an Excel spreadsheet in draft mode, with names added and deleted.

“We’re not finished building this class yet,” Tucker said last December. “There will be announcements throughout the rest of this day and into the spring and into the summer.”

But even as Tucker has aimed to mold MSU in his image, his remodeled team still has talent deficiencies among the upperclassmen. That much is clear after the Free Press obtained preliminary draft grades from two major NFL scouting services.

Michigan State linemen Matt Allen (64) and Blake Bueter (66) during the annual spring game Saturday, April 7, 2018 at Spartan Stadium.

Based on evaluations by National Football Scouting and BLESTO, only offensive linemen Matt Allen and Kevin Jarvis are in line to be selected. But both are considered late-round picks, pegged to go in the final hours of Day 3. The rest of their teammates — many of whom are members of the 2017 class — are viewed as potential undrafted free agents. Defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and running back Connor Heyward were graded as such. So too was transfer quarterback Anthony Russo, who is competing with Payton Thorne for the starting role this fall.

Whether pro scouts’ opinions matter to Tucker is uncertain.

But he worked in the league for 10 years and has tried to imbue his program with the culture that exists at the next level.

To get the Spartans to where he wants them on Saturdays, he needs players capable of playing on Sundays.

Michigan State running back Connor Heyward runs by Northwestern defensive back Greg Newsome II during the first half MSU's 29-20 win over Northwestern at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Dantonio did, too.

But he had a way of extracting hidden talent from overlooked recruits to build teams that could contend. Over time, it proved unsustainable; the alchemy fizzled at the end of his tenure and scrap metal was all that was left. Tucker’s formula is to simply recruit players who have higher floors and ceilings. It has a better chance of working in the long run.

It will just take time for everything to materialize — if it, in fact, does.    

“That's part of the process, and that's really part of the progression,” Tucker said this spring.

This isn’t magic, after all. Those days in East Lansing are over. 

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter