Saturday, November 28, 2020

MSU football update: Where the Spartans stand in April

April 2, 2020

It has now been three weeks since almost all sporting events in the United States have come to a halt, but that hasn’t stopped the Michigan State football program from doing as much as they can to prepare for the upcoming season, assuming it takes place. 

Despite an already shortened time to build up his program, newly-appointed coach Mel Tucker and his staff have been, in their own words, “relentless” in their effort to make this transition into this new season as smooth as possible. 

But where is Michigan State in its process of shaping up the team? Here is an update on everything you need to know about Michigan State football. 

Offense 

Let’s start with the position that everyone wants to know about, the quarterback. This group might be one of the youngest, and one of the more inexperienced groups, that the 2020 squad has. While new Offensive Coordinator Jay Johnson has not had much time to analyze the players, he has a specific mold he wants to fill in his mind. 

“At the end of the day, they are the CEO of this team,” Johnson said. “I’m looking for someone who has that presence to them, because at the end of the day their number one job is to get the 10 around them to play at a new level and to lead our team.” 

Johnson said he has not been able to see much action on the field of his quarterback group, but he has been taking time to watch some film. In his time studying film, Johnson said he was impressed with sophomore Theo Day’s ability to throw the football.

“When I watch his tape, the ball comes out of his hand real well,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to get with him more in person and get on the field and do some things with him.” 

After stepping into the transfer portal midway through last season, Connor Heyward has decided to return to East Lansing in the hope that a new coaching staff might do him some good. Despite rumors that he might switch to the defensive side of the ball, it appears that, for now, the coaching staff will try to make him a one-two punch in the backfield with Elijah Collins, who broke out in his freshman season after Heyward’s initial departure from the team.

One of the positions that will block for guys like Collins and Heyward is the tight end position. This position has been something left desired for the Spartans in recent years. Expect that to change under Johnson, who stressed the importance of that position in a teleconference March 25. Since Matt Seybert graduated, redshirt sophomore Trenton Gillison headlines the group that includes senior Matt Dotson and redshirt sophomore Parks Gissinger.

“The tight end is the MVP of what we do offensively,” Johnson said. “They’ve got to be aggressive and physical from the blocking perspective and they have to be able to run routes and get open. That definitely is going to be a big focus for us.” 

Senior offensive lineman Matt Allen said one of the biggest challenges he has had thus far is learning the new lingo of the staff. Pair this information with a completely new staff, and it is fair to assume that the Spartans’ offense will have a new look come this fall. 

Defense 

With a lot of the same staff returning on the defensive side of the ball, expect to only see gradual changes in the defense. New Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton and Tucker have said repeatedly that they do not want to be fully committed to one scheme, and that they want to find a scheme that fits the personnel they have best. 

Considering the way former coach Mark Dantonio and his staff recruited, expect to see more of the classic 4-3 scheme the Spartans have rolled out in the past. 

“We’ve been four down here for a long time, and we’ve recruited for that, so we’ll probably see a lot more of that.” Hazelton said. 

Hazelton is taking the helm of a defense that has been stout year in, year out. In his short time as defensive coordinator, he has already made a large impact on the players on that side of the ball, senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. 

“I have loved every second talking to him (Hazelton) and being around him,” Simmons said. “When he talks, we listen. He’s got that type of presence with us and with the team.” 

With guys like Ron Burton, Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel all returning to coach the defense this season, Hazelton and Tucker will bring some fresh ideas to defense, with the principles of old still lingering. 

Impacts of COVID-19  

Like everybody in today’s crazy world, the staff has had to be creative in the way they do business in the age of social distancing, and just like the rest of the world, Simmons said Zoom meetings have become a must.  

“We’re all on Zoom,” Simmons said. “We’re real heavy into that, and we treat our days as if we're at school ... we just treat it as if it’s another day in the building.” 

With no access to the facilities, players have had to be creative to complete workouts. Some have better setups than others, like Allen having his brother and former Spartan offensive lineman Jack Allen home to work with him and blocking pads to work on his technique. Others have had to be innovative, including AJ Arcuri, who has resorted to using a broomstick with cinder blocks on each side to lift. 

Despite the struggles, Simmons said he understands the importance of the shutdown. 

“It’s tough,” Simmons said. “It's the best thing to do right now for everybody ... It'd be completely unsafe for us football teams to be out there working out. ... It just shows who is committed and who’s not.” 

With spring practices and the green and white game being put on hold, we might not get to see the Spartans until early September, when they take on Northwestern.

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