Michigan State football: Why Mel Tucker’s defensive scheme relies on nickel back

Michael Dowell and the rest of the Michigan State football defensive backs learned in March they would need to learn a new system.

Then came the shutdown that eliminated Mel Tucker’s installation of the 4-2-5 defense. It would be up to the players to learn it from afar.

“As a defensive backfield,” Dowell said Tuesday, “we just all embraced it.”

Indiana running back Stevie Scott III is stopped by Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson, left, and cornerback Angelo Grose and during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.Indiana running back Stevie Scott III is stopped by Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson, left, and cornerback Angelo Grose and during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.
Indiana running back Stevie Scott III is stopped by Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson, left, and cornerback Angelo Grose and during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.

Dowell, a sophomore whose older brothers Andrew (linebacker) and David (safety) played key roles for the Spartans in previous seasons, worked at safety in his first career start in last Saturday’s 24-0 loss to Indiana, and freshman Angelo Grose debuted at nickel back . That game gave Tucker and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton a glimpse at some younger players who hope to resurrect MSU’s “No Fly Zone” ethos with a twist.

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The key change from Mark Dantonio’s base 4-3 is that Tucker has replaced one linebacker with a nickel back, who is expected to be a play-maker.

“I’m used to being in nickel and dime, actually having six DBs on the field quite a bit,” Tucker said Tuesday during his news conference. “Because that gives you the ability to match up and play multiple coverages and be able to match personnel and play man coverage when you need to.”

Junior Shakur Brown started the season at nickel before moving to the outside with cornerback Chris Jackson out the past two games. Dowell, Grose and sophomore Julian Barnett have rotated in the nickel the past few weeks.

Michigan State's Tre Person, left, and Michael Dowell tackle Michigan's Hassan Haskins during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.Michigan State's Tre Person, left, and Michael Dowell tackle Michigan's Hassan Haskins during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
Michigan State’s Tre Person, left, and Michael Dowell tackle Michigan’s Hassan Haskins during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

“We have a lot of guys in our defensive backfield that can play that spot, our defensive backs room for that spot,” Dowell said. “It’s a hybrid between a linebacker, corner-type safety. So just being able to do a lot of different things, like coach Tucker said, be able to cover, run and have a high football IQ, I think, are intangibles that goes into that spot.”

MSU enters its unplanned week off — thanks to Thursday’s cancellation of its game against Maryland — ranked 71st in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards allowed (242.2) but 30th in passing efficiency against (121.21).

Tucker couldn’t cite a prototype, but said the nickel position tis key to what he wants the Spartans’ defense to become. It will play a big role in matching personnel against spread systems that use five-wide receiver sets, or double-tight end packages with two wideouts. It allows MSU to switch between zone and man coverage as needed, to blitz with speed from another spot and to still provide support in run defense like a linebacker would.

“You have to be very adjustable to shifts and motions and different types of alignments. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting guys in a position where they can play that,” Tucker said. “You need to you need to have at least three guys that can do that because of injuries and things like that. And then then at some point, we may even be able to evolve to some type of a dime package, where you can get more guys on the field, more speed on the field. …

“That’s a very valuable position, If you get guys that can play that spot, multiple guys that can play that spot, that’s like gold. And everyone in NFL is looking for guys that can play in there, because it’s hard to find guys that can do that at a high level.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football: Nickel back critical to Mel Tucker’s defense

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