Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Five takeaways from Michigan State Football's spring game

April 24, 2021
Quarterback Anthony Russo (15) prepares to throw the ball on April 24, 2021.
Quarterback Anthony Russo (15) prepares to throw the ball on April 24, 2021. —
Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

The first “Spring Game” of the Mel Tucker era has concluded. Despite being more of a practice than what has been seen in the past, there are five key takeaways that are noticeable from our first look at the 2021 Michigan State Spartans.

1. Kenneth Walker is a serious playmaker

Whether it was a drill, a seven on seven or 11 on 11, Walker showed serious home run play potential for this Michigan State offense. Walker has a quick burst and ability to make defenders miss even on his first step, something that the running backs for Michigan State a year ago didn’t have.

“He’s a complete player, I think you could see that today,” Tucker said. “He does an excellent job running the ball, ball security, he can make guys miss, he runs with power, as well along with a great job in pass protection.”

The coaching staff has been adamant that they plan on going running back by committee, and they have the variety of running backs to do that. Elijah Collins looked to be back to form as well today with some solid runs and a lot of catches out of the backfield, and Connor Heyward brings the veteran presence to that room. They’ll also have Donovan Eaglin who got significant time today and Jordon Simmons, who led the team in rushing last season.

However, expect Walker to demand the bulk of the carries if he continues to play like this.

2. Wide receiver room shows tons of potential

Jayden Reed dawned number one on his jersey, the first time since Charles Rogers did for Michigan State at the beginning of the decade. On the day, Reed hauled in two touchdown passes on deep balls from both Payton Thorne and Anthony Russo, one of which was called back due to a holding penalty.

With Ricky White out for the day, we saw lots of players take on the third wide receiver spot alongside Reed and Jalen Nailor. Terry Lockett Jr. was the main beneficiary of that but was limited in targets on the day.

However, both Cade McDonald and Ian Stewart showed out in the second unit for the Spartans with long catches, including one from Stewart down the left side of the field as he rose up over a defender to catch a deep pass from Noah Kim that was a bit short.

“Ian’s done a really nice job, he’s a very hard worker,” Tucker said. “We moved him to tight end last season for a little bit, then we moved him back to receiver. He’s got a big body, he’s got good hands and he plays really hard. It’s always good to see those young guys step up and make some plays.”

Whoever steps in at quarterback should have plenty of weapons this fall.

3. QB starting job is officially down to two

Throughout the day, Thorne and Russo were both splitting reps as Kim, Hamp Fay and Theo Day seemed behind by a couple of steps. Kim seemed to be set as quarterback three but a step behind the other two.

“You can see we have really good competition at that position,” Tucker said. “I thought all three of those guys (Thorne, Russo, Kim) ... as well as Theo (Day) and Hamp Fay, I thought they all showed some good things. They made some good throws, made some good decisions.”

Thorne looks to be the most comfortable in this offense as at times he seemed to take a few more snaps than Russo. However, an acrobatic interception from Michael Dowell ended his rather solid day. Despite that, Thorne looked mobile, confident and consistent in the offense in his second season of playing time.

Russo flashed as well, especially in the deep game. His dart to Reed down the left side of the field was a perfectly thrown ball, right on the money. Where Russo will have to improve is in his accuracy and decision making, but his ability to throw the deep ball will be enticing for the offense as we saw last season.

4. Defense shows flashes, noticeable holes

There was a lot of turnover in the linebackers and secondary for Michigan State but a lot of returning talent in the front four. 

We saw that flash at times from the defense with young players like linebacker Cal Haladay making big hits and taking advantage of the thin depth, being the second starting linebacker alongside Noah Harvey, and freshman Simeon Barrow making solid moves on the interior in the pass rush.

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The returning talent flashed too with Dowell making an acrobatic interception off a really solid read in the secondary. Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk each looked improved and should bring experience and production to the defensive ends unit along with Jalen Hunt and Deshaun Mallory looking fast and efficient in the interior. The defensive line will certainly be a strength this season.

However, the secondary in the second cornerback spot was often beat by the wide receivers whether it was Justin White, Zach Denha or Kendell Brooks. There are transfers and newcomers arriving this summer, but the secondary severely needs more depth.

The same can be said for the linebackers, but the linebackers have a solid starting core even without the newcomers with Haladay and Harvey.

“That’s why it is so important to get these 15 practices in so these guys can develop and continue to grow,” Tucker said. “Then we’ll take into the summer, have a really good summer program. I expect to see a better football team going into fall camp.”

5. Tempo is the name of the game

Right from the jump, players were conditioned to react to the horn and knew exactly where to go. The tempo whether it was a drill, seven on seven or 11 on 11 was extremely apparent. 

This is the way college football has been moving for a long time, and you can see it finally coming to Michigan State after they have fallen behind that movement over the last few years. It’ll be interesting to see how the offense implements it this fall with a full spring and summer to work with it.

“Heavy emphasis on tempo, we want to work with a sense of urgency,” Tucker said. “Guys need to know where to go and then get there very quickly and get the next drill started fast as possible. Urgency, tempo, that’s all part of how we practice, that’s our mindset, our mental disposition towards getting things done.”


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