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Michigan State football: Jonathan Smith names Joe Rossi his defensive coordinator

Fans will love this hire.

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Michigan State football
© David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

After weeks of speculation, Michigan State football has hired its defensive coordinator and it’s not who we expected.

On Dec. 10, Pete Thamel and Justin Thind each reported (Thamel) and confirmed (Thind) that Michigan State football had made its hire at defensive coordinator. Joe Rossi, the previous defensive coordinator at Minnesota, is on his way to East Lansing. 

Who is Joe Rossi?

Joe Rossi was a name that was not mentioned among speculative names for Michigan State’s openings. If you saw circles, the common speculation was Jimmy Lake from the Los Angeles Rams, but his previous dismissal at Washington was a drawback to that hire.  

He was under the radar. This is ironic, as his resume is also under the radar. During his time with the Golden Gophers, Rossi was quietly one of college football’s best defensive coordinators. 

In the last five seasons, Rossi’s defense has been rated in the top 10 in the country three times, in 2019, 2021, and 2022. When you factor out the COVID season, that accounts for a top-10 defense in three of the last four full seasons. In 2021, Rossi was nominated for the Broyles Award, given to the best coordinator in all of college football. Bruce Feldman named the 44-year-old one of the top 30 collegiate assistants in his rankings. During the 2022 season, Rossi coached Minnesota to shutouts against New Mexico State and Rutgers, the first time the Golden Gophers blanked two opponents in a season since 2006. 

Rossi has been no slouch in sending players to the pros, either. Nine Minnesota defenders have been drafted in the last five seasons, highlighted by Antoine Winfield Jr. and Boye Mafe going in the second rounds of the 2020 and 2022 NFL Drafts, respectively. 

This season, Minnesota took a step back, ranking 58th in yards per game. That said, the Minnesota offense had a horrendous season, which left the defense on the field for a much longer time. After the horror show that was Scottie Hazelton’s defenses, Michigan State football fans should be ecstatic about a hire where the worst season still ranked in the top half of the country. 

Rossi normally is in charge of linebackers as well as his defensive coordinator duties. In the last five seasons, three of his linebackers have been drafted. The Spartans have seen one of Rossi’s linebackers in their program, as Tank Brown transferred over. While he had struggles off the field, Brown also provided some crucial plays for the 2021 Spartans, such as a pressure on the last defensive play of the Peach Bowl, leading to a Cal Haladay pick-six. 

This also pays a dividend in recruiting, as Michigan State has been pushing hard for three-star linebacker Brady Pretzlaff. Additionally, the Spartans locking up a defensive coordinator in time for National Signing Day assures all recruits of whose system they will be working under. 

Overall, this is a slam-dunk hire for the Spartans. Rossi knows Big Ten football, working with both Minnesota and Rutgers during his career. The Pittsburgh native can help recruit the Midwest region of the country along with Harlon Barnett, one of the few recruiting weaknesses on Jonathan Smith’s staff. The days of Scottie Hazelton surrendering 700 yards in a game are officially history.

Michigan State Media and Information Management Class of '22. Emmett covers primarily football, recruiting, and basketball for Spartan Shadows. He has also written for Spartan Avenue, Basic Blues, and Hail WV.

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