EAST LANSING — Michigan State’s 2021 season ended with green and white confetti falling at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta after a Peach Bowl win over Pittsburgh.
An 11-2 record and a No. 9 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll capped a remarkable turnaround in coach Mel Tucker’s second season at the helm of the program.
“For me, growing up and throughout my life, it was never my goal to finish ninth in anything,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “It’s always ahead, there’s always more.”
That was the message sent Saturday after Michigan State’s spring game. More than three months after the Spartans wrapped up the biggest single-season improvement in program history – going 2-5 in the pandemic-altered 2020 schedule – expectations have changed and there are a buzz about the direction of the program.
“It will definitely be different after an 11-2 season versus a 2-5 season,” Thorne said. “I really think there’s excitement around the program right now and now it’s our job to bring more excitement to the program. As a team, we have to come every day with the objective of being better than we were last year. We have different goals this year and we are going to hold ourselves to a high standard.
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Michigan State has lost key players, none bigger than All-American running back Kenneth Walker III. There are transfer additions who have been on campus for three months integrating into the team, with more coming in the summer who are expected to be key contributors in the fall. Tucker, however, said the main area of growth over the past 15 spring practices isn’t in the Xs and Bones.
“We worked hard to become more of a player-led team rather than a coach-led team,” he said. “That was a big point for us, for our guys to hold each other accountable, confront each other and demand that they do things right. We have made tremendous progress in this area. It’s not something you can necessarily see in a practice like (Saturday) but we see it every day in our meetings, in our tours, in the weight room and in our practices how guys really step up and s ‘appropriate this football team.”
The push for more player leadership has been a constant message from Tucker for some time. The situation the Spartans find themselves in is new though, they have just had their best season since 2015.
Safe Xavier Henderson’s first two seasons at Michigan State, the team went 7-6, followed by the two-win campaign in 2020. He’s now back for a fifth year and thinks there’s has more membership for a group that picks up where it left off.
“I think it looks a little different after winning the Peach Bowl compared to playing in the Redbox Bowl (in 2018). … You just want to continue what you did last year. That’s what we felt. I think the team really understands Coach Tucker a lot more and how he talks and what he wants to do around the building and on the football pitch and off it as well.
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Michigan State needs to make improvements in all three phases of the game before the season kicks off Sept. 2 against Western Michigan. The work until then will be done almost completely out of the public eye, but with heightened expectations – both within and outside the program.
“We come together as a team,” Tucker said. “We have a very good energy and a very good connection and that will only grow throughout the summer. I anticipate that we will have a very, very good summer program where our guys will be in great shape before fall camp. It will be very competitive, we will be healthy and we will have a strong team.
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