Spring practice is a time for shuffling depth charts and finding replacements for the parts of the roster a team is losing. For Michigan State’s experienced defense, the biggest hole to fill during the past month was on the sideline where former coordinator Pat Narduzzi stood before accepting a head-coaching job at Pittsburgh.
Michigan State promoted two of its defensive assistants to take over Narduzzi’s role and hired Mark Snyder to fill the vacant spot and work with linebackers. At an introductory press conference in January, Snyder said his first goal was to convince his players he cares about them and try to start earning the same level of trust Narduzzi built over a long, successful stay in East Lansing.
“Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Snyder said.
As the Spartans close down their first spring without Narduzzi this weekend, it appears that Snyder has made some good headway in that department. Members of the Michigan State front seven have described him as “a cool dude” and more of a “players’ coach” than the rest of the staff. Senior linebacker Ed Davis said he’ll never have a coach who can match the constant energy that Narduzzi brought to practices, but Snyder has done his part to fill that void in spring ball.
“I don’t think anybody will be able to match Coach Duzz’s intensity,” Davis said. “I think Coach Snyder is one of the closest dudes to giving us that fire. He has a certain thing about him plus his accent just gets everybody fired up. He’s the closest.”
Apparently Snyder, an Ohio native, picked up enough of a twang during his last three years working with Texas A&M’s defense to trip Davis up at times. He said he’s occasionally had trouble understanding what his new coach is hollering during practices, but other than those brief miscommunications the transition to a new coach has been smooth.
Snyder’s intensity will be on display on the sideline this Saturday at the spring game and presumably going forward into the fall. Co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett will be calling plays from the press box, according to head coach Mark Dantonio.
During spring practice, Tressel bounced between the defensive line and linebacker meeting rooms while Snyder worked with the linebackers. They previously worked together -- along with Dantonio -- on Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team. Tressel, a graduate assistant at the time, helped Snyder coach that linebacker group while Dantonio served as the defensive coordinator.
Snyder has the added luxury of working this season with a veteran group of linebackers that have high expectations for themselves. Davis and Darien Harris return as starters on the outside. Junior Riley Bullough will play between them after cutting his teeth as a regular contributor during the last two seasons. Davis and Harris both said Bullough is growing this spring into a carbon copy of his older brother, Max, who was an all-conference linebacker and the captain of the 2013 Spartans defense.
That trio has all zeroed in on ways to improve individually this offseason after helping Michigan State finish 2014 with the top rushing defense in the nation. Bullough and Harris have spent their spring seasons trying to get better at diagnosing plays and formations before the snap. Davis, who felt snubbed as an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick last fall, said he’s been trying to get more physical with offensive lineman rather than using his speed to get around them during the last month of practice.
“I think it’s my year to step up and show the world,” Davis said. “I tried last year, but I didn’t work hard enough. … I felt like I did last year, but obviously it wasn’t enough so I’ve got to work harder next year.”
Narduzzi spent eight years at Michigan State building that type of attitude and level of expectations among his linebackers. Business is continuing as usual for that group despite the coaching change. Harris spoke with reporters after the team’s first practice this spring and said he didn’t expect his fellow linebackers to miss a beat.
“It was a little bit different, but to be honest we didn’t notice,” Harris said. “We’re all thankful for the time we had with Coach Narduzzi. We know we have to move on, and Coach Tressel and Coach Barnett are going to do a fantastic job at defensive coordinator. They did for the first practice today. We’re just going to keep the ball rolling.”