Detroit Free Press

MSU football vibe is on the rise under Jonathan Smith

- Chris Solari

EAST LANSING – After a season filled with turmoil and turnover, with a coaching change underway, Derrick Harmon entered the transfer portal.

The Detroit native, after visiting a handful of other schools, realized staying with Michigan State football would be his best option. To stay close to home so his mom can watch. To remain with his close friends and defensive line partners Simeon Barrow and Maverick Hansen. To maximize what he hopes will be an NFL future.

And coach Jonathan Smith and the Spartans’ new staff convinced him it was the right decision with a few simple words.

“Really, just that we’re gonna win some games here,” Harmon said Tuesday after MSU’s fourth practice under Smith. “We’re gonna bring some pieces around you, and we’re gonna win some games. That’s what I really heard, so they sold me there.”

Six months ago, the Spartans suddenly found themselves at a crossroad. MSU fired Mel Tucker after he coached the first two games. The team took a nosedive from there and finished 4-8, losing six games in a row after Tucker’s dismissal and missing a bowl game for the third time in the past four seasons.

Interim coach Harlon Barnett kept the team fighting but would not be retained. Players and coaches finished out their season with their futures in limbo.

“We had to play for each other. And that, kind of in a weird way, probably brought us closer together even though the results weren’t what we wanted,” senior linebacker Cal Haladay said. “We still were playing for each other. Even though some of us were banged up, we just kept playing for each other. That was kind of the way the season finished out.”

Tucker went 20-14 in his three-plus seasons and became the first MSU coach to beat rival Michigan in his first two tries before he was fired for off-field issues.

Yet there also was concern about the football side. Tucker’s recruiting strategy of chasing high-end national players more often led to misses than landing top targets, leading to not

being in on the top in-state and regional talent. The Spartans went 5-7 in 2022 and 2-5 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 seasons, with an 11-2 top-10 finish in 2021 sandwiched between.

Enter Smith, who arrived after six seasons at his alma mater, Oregon State. He completely turned the Beavers around, going from nine victories combined in his first three years to a program that won 25 times over his final three seasons in Corvallis, Oregon.

“The environmen­t has been different since Day 1,” Harmon said as he stood next to a national championsh­ip trophy case inside the opulent, new Tom Izzo Football Building lobby. “Everything’s been changed. We got a whole new building right now, we got a whole new locker room, new facilities, everything.

“The vibe is up here. Like, guys are walking around here happy. Last year, with everything that was going on, you couldn’t really find anything

to be happy about. But now, guys are happy to come in the building and work.”

The Spartans lost 17 players to transfer, 14 of them having entered the portal after Smith was hired. Harmon was one of 10 players who entered the portal and decided to remain to play for Smith after he was hired Nov. 25.

The early reviews of Smith are strong from those who stayed.

“He’s a straight shooter,” said junior right guard Geno VanDeMark, who took one visit while in the portal before deciding to remain at MSU. “I mean, he’s not gonna beat around the bush or say something that he doesn’t think is important or true. And honest. I think he’s a very honest guy.”

VanDeMark summed up his three-plus week dip in the portal pool as an interestin­g exploratio­n – “It’s fast and it’s crazy” – but said he ultimately “ended up at home” based on his conversati­ons with Smith and new offensive line coach Jim Michalczik.

“I just love this place. I don’t know, man, it’s tough to say the exact (moment) when something clicked,” said VanDeMark, who started eight games the past two seasons. “But just the way I’d say Coach Smith and Coach M (Michalczik) went about making conversati­on with me . ... I just liked who they were and how they were.”

Along with the roster retention, three of the incoming transfers Smith and his staff brought in – quarterbac­k Aidan Chiles, offensive lineman Tanner Miller and tight end Jack Velling – played for them last season at Oregon State. Five incoming freshmen also flipped their commitment­s from the Beavers to the Spartans.

“I just like the whole mantra of coach Smith – ‘I’m not here to overpromis­e and underdeliv­er.’ And everyone seemed very genuine and trustworth­y from Day 1,” VanDeMark said. “So I just liked who they were as people. And that’s most important to me in most areas of life.”

While there remains a lot of work ahead this spring before the Spartans’ spring showcase April 20, the public debut of Smith’s brand of football, players on both sides of the ball are optimistic about what they are learning so far as the system rollout begins.

Harmon believes the work he and the other defensive linemen are getting with new assistant Legi Suiaunoa will allow them to get upfield and make more plays in the backfield. He added that he sees an offense that will throw the ball more frequently while still trying to maximize the ground game.

And along with the new football building and new weight room and new coaching staff, a new attitude is beginning to permeate through everyone in the team.

“It’s a different way of doing pretty much everything,” VanDeMark said. “It’s a different program at this point.”

Contact Chris Solari: . Follow him @chrissolar­i .

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 ?? NICK KING/LANSING STATE JOURNAL ?? Newly hired Michigan State football coach Jonathan Smith is working quickly to instill a confident attitude in his players.
NICK KING/LANSING STATE JOURNAL Newly hired Michigan State football coach Jonathan Smith is working quickly to instill a confident attitude in his players.

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