Similar to how I did with Chip Long last week, I decided to get an outside perspective on Georgia Tech’s latest hire, DB Coach Travares Tillman. Big thanks to Ryan O’Bleness of The Only Colors for taking the time to answer my questions. Be sure to give them a follow on Twitter @TheOnlyColors and @ryanobleness.
Ben: I know Michigan State’s pass defense struggled this year, giving up 0.154 EPA/pass (103rd in the country). Is that on the cornerbacks that Tillman coached, or is there another part of the defense that was the reason for the pass defense struggles?
TOC: Honestly, it’s hard to pin-point what exactly caused the struggles with the passing defense because it was a combination of things — personnel, scheme, coaching, lack of execution, etc.. Michigan State plays with at least five defensive backs on the field on nearly every play, as the team deploys a 4-2-5 base defense. The cornerbacks struggled in coverage, but so did the nickelbacks and safeties. I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to say that is all on Tillman. But at the same time, practices are closed throughout the season for media/fans and I won’t pretend to know what exact techniques Tillman was teaching his group. Head coach Mel Tucker is also a defensive backs coach by trade and Harlon Barnett is an experienced secondary coach/former defensive coordinator, while Tillman was in his first year at Michigan State in the role. Or maybe defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s scheme was just not the right fit for Michigan State’s current defensive backs personnel. So there are probably multiple people responsible for the struggles.
Another thing to consider is that Michigan State employed a “bend-don’t break” pass defense the entire year. This wasn’t necessarily what Tucker and the staff wanted to do, and if you ask Tucker, “bend-don’t-break” isn’t the philosophy MSU wants to have, but realizing a lot of guys still on the roster were not recruited by Tucker or Hazelton and may not fit the scheme, you would often see cornerbacks give wide receivers huge cushions pre-snap, as the Spartans elected to keep everything in front of them. A lot of teams could move the ball on MSU between the 20-yard-lines, but the defense actually tightened up in the red zone and kept teams out of the end zone more often than not.
Michigan State also faced a lot of heavy passing teams such as Miami (FL.), Western Kentucky, Purdue, Maryland and Ohio State, so some of the numbers could be inflated (especially the Ohio State performance, but more so because of the talent gap) based on the sheer number of passing attempts the Spartans saw, but coverage was an issue all year long. There were also some key injuries in the secondary, such as true freshman cornerback Charles Brantley, and one of the key contributors, Kalon Gervin, entered the transfer portal midseason as well. But the fact of the matter is, for one reason or another, the passing defense was simply atrocious. How much blame should be attributed to Tillman is hard to say, but I’m sure he is at least somewhat responsible.
Also remember that, to just about everybody’s surprise, Michigan State went 10-2 this season, after being picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten East according to some preseason media polls. So the passing defense woes only cost the Spartans victories against Purdue and Ohio State.
Ben: I see that Tillman served as Mel Tucker’s DB coach at Colorado, but was only named a defensive assistant when Tucker first started at Michigan State. Do you know if there was a reason Tillman wasn’t immediately named a position coach?
TOC: I can’t say for sure if there is a specific reason, but my guess is that it was because of who Tucker hired/who was already there. Barnett and Mike Tressel were long-time assistant coaches at Michigan State under Mark Dantonio, and were co-defensive coordinators together. When Tucker was hired, he retained Tressel from Dantonio’s staff, not as defensive coordinator, but as safeties coach. Barnett had actually departed East Lansing for a couple seasons, serving as defensive coordinator for Florida State in 2018 and 2019, but decided to come back to Michigan State under Tucker in 2020. It’s hard to ignore that kind of experience with those two coaches — both on the defensive side of the ball and their familiarity with the Michigan State program (in addition to coaching, Barnett also played college football at MSU ) — while Tillman is still pretty young into his coaching career. When Tressel left to take the defensive coordinator job with Cincinnatii for the 2021 season, Tucker was quick to promote Tillman and give Barnett the role of “secondary coach.”
Even if he wasn’t one of the 10 main assistant coaches for the first season, I think it speaks volumes that Tucker brough Tillman with him to his staff in East Lansing and that he promoted him as soon as the opportunity was available. Before Colorado, the two also worked together at Georgia when Tucker was the defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach and Tillman was a quality control assistant. All in all, it shows Tucker has tremendous respect for Tillman.
Ben: How do Michigan State fans feel about losing Tillman? Did they think he would continue to improve on the job, or are they ready to get some new blood in working with the CBs?
TOC: Based on the responses I’ve seen on Twitter, and a few of the comments I’ve read on our own article about Tillman leaving, Michigan State fans seem generally fine with him leaving and are seemingly blaming him for the struggles with the passing defense, but again, I’m not sure that’s the whole story — an argument can certainly be made that the safeties and nickelbacks were just as bad or worse in coverage than the cornerbacks. But I think the prospect of hiring a young up-and-comer or an experienced cornerbacks coach gives Spartans fans hope that next year’s passing defense will improve, and that Michigan State can build off of this 10-2 season and find even more success in 2022.
Ben: What do you think of Tillman as a recruiter? Has he helped Michigan State bring in any big names on the recruiting trail?
TOC: I think this is where Tillman makes his bread and butter. Even if he is most at fault for the passing game struggles (again, jury still out on that one), he is pretty highly-regarded for his recruiting prowess from my understanding. I think this will be especially true in his home state of Georgia. According to 247sports, in Michigan State’s 2022 recruiting class, Tillman is credited with being the lead recruiter for three-star safety, and the No. 50 overall safety in the class, Malik Spencer out of Buford, Georgia and athlete/cornerback Shannon Blair, the No. 63 overall athlete, out of Knoxville, Tennessee. While at Colorado, Tillman also helped land four-star defensive back Christian Gonzalez, and a couple of other three-star recruits.
Ben: Is there anything else Tech fans should know about Tillman?
TOC: As I’m sure you’re aware, Tillman played at Georgia Tech, so I have to imagine this is a big deal for him and an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. He also played in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins. He was a second-round draft pick by the Bills in 200 (No. 58 overall). He started his coaching at the Calvary Day School in Savannah, Georgia in 2012 before catching on with Kirby Smart and Georgia as a graduate assistant in 2016.
Here is what Tucker had to say about Tillman as a coach and recruiter when he promoted him in January.
“Travares is an excellent defensive backs coach who has played and coached at the highest levels of football,” Tucker said. “He played seven seasons in the NFL and has coached in the College Football Playoff. I was impressed with Travares when he was on our defensive staff at Georgia and have been working with him ever since. He connects with the players and will be dynamic and relentless on the recruiting trail. Travares has already spent one season on our staff here at MSU, so he understands our culture and what we’re doing from a schematic perspective. He possesses the traits and skills we’re looking for on our defensive staff.”
How are you feeling about the addition of Coach Tillman?