Each week heading into the Spring Game for MSU Football, The State News will be taking a look at a position group on Mel Tucker's roster as the Spartans prepare for their second season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Eli McKown takes a look in the trenches with the offensive and defensive line.
Football is won in the trenches, probably why we saw Michigan State go 2-5 last season.
Neither of these units were great last year as the offensive line only created two running touchdowns and the defensive line ranked near the bottom of the conference in pass rush and creating sacks.
However, the Spartans lost very little from a year ago on both sides of the ball and return lots of production and experience. Instead of highlighting each player as we have done before, we will do a rundown of each unit and how they project for this season.
The biggest shift for the Spartans since their playoff appearance at the end of the 2015-2016 season is the deterioration of Michigan State’s offensive line play, most notably in the run game.
“The run game was not nearly good enough,” Tucker said. “We all know that and I think ‘putrid’ might have been a word that can be used and so it is what it is, but we need to get better. When we can't run the ball on our terms, we can't be good teams, we just can't do it. We need to be able to run the ball when we want to run it.”
However, they improved last season, moving from 114 to 71 in Pro Football Focus’ college football offensive line rankings, putting them in the middle of the pack in college football.
The best part? They return everybody and got some people back.
At tackle, the Spartans will return sixth year senior AJ Arcuri who started all seven games for Michigan State last season and will likely slot in at left tackle as he did last season. At right tackle, the Spartans will likely have two guys competing for that starting job in Arkansas State transfer Jarret Horst and senior Jordan Reid, who opted out last season, but started all 13 games in 2019 at right tackle.
All three could get the starting nod and all three will receive substantial playing time, but I foresee Reid slotting in at right tackle and Arcuri continuing his stretch of starts at left tackle.
The interior of the offensive line could get interesting with younger guys becoming veterans and still a wealth of seniors who could fit here.
Senior Kevin Jarvis is a guy who has played nearly everywhere for the Spartans on the offensive line including at both tackle spots, but mainly at right guard where 17 of his 27 starts have come from. I think Jarvis fits there and if healthy, could potentially be an All Big Ten guard as he did as a freshman as an honorable mention on the Big Ten freshman team.
At left guard, J.D Duplain has started 10 games of his career there and could be back at that spot again as he started their for the final five games of the season for the Spartans last year, but could also be challenged by senior Matt Carrick who started all seven games at right guard this past season. It’s a toss-up, but for now we’ll go with Carrick at left guard assuming he could move to that spot and have Duplain be the back-up at either guard position.
At center, there will be a competition between senior Matt Allen and junior Nick Samac. Both have tremendous experience and talent at the center spot and either of which could do the job, but Allen prior to his injury last year was on the Rimington watchlist for best center in college football. I think he’ll get the nod at center to complete the starting offensive line.
Along with the tremendous depth Horst, Samac and Duplain will bring, the Spartans will also have senior Luke Campbell, who has played nearly everywhere on the offensive line, and guard Blake Bueter. These five behind our projected starting five will have 77 combined career starts and quite frankly is another starting five of offensive lineman. Expect a lot of rotation next season.
The defensive line has a similar situation, but the defensive line did not improve like the offensive line did. The Michigan State defense dropped from 15 to 51 in total rush defense from 2019 to 2020 and from 12 in sacks all the way down to 90 in sacks from 2019 to 2020.
However, the depth and leadership this team has will likely allow a rebound.
"They're developing that second move now that's gonna allow us to gain more sacks and the ability to carry it over by having a spring ball and then having a summer prior to going into the fall,” Michigan State defensive line coach Ron Burton said. “No doubt about that, we expect that to improve and it starts with the great fundamentals in our pass rush ability.”
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As for the edge rushers, the Spartans will likely line up with seniors Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley as starters. Panasiuk struggled last season and lost weight after a bout with COVID-19 and should have a bounce back year. Beesley led the team in sacks last year and will lead the room once again.
They will be backed up by Duke transfer Drew Jordan and senior Jack Camper, both of which are on their final year of eligibility and should bring consistent play when Panasiuk and Beesley step off the field.
At defensive tackle there will be more of a battle for the second defensive tackle spot as junior Jacob Slade after starting all seven games last year will likely lock up the first spot. The second spot will be between junior Dashaun Mallory and sophomore Jalen Hunt in a battle to replace Naquan Jones.
Both Mallory and Hunt are known as more dynamic defensive tackles who can also pass rush in addition to filling holes on run defense. The competition between these two will likely come down to who can be the most consistent on a game by game basis, something that Burton thinks Hunt will need to develop despite flashes of star potential.
“Consistency is what he needs,” Burton said. “He flashes all the time and he has a great get off, you want to utilize that as much as possible by being disruptive.”
The nutrition and strength staff has been working with Mallory to cut weight to make him more mobile and agile on the line where Hunt may have the current advantage.
“Dashaun Mallory, who's lost some weight, has really been a bit more dynamic,” Burton said. “He's lost 25-30 pounds and it's allowed him to have a lot more movement.”
Between Hunt and Mallory, Maverick Hansen will also be battling for reps as a guy with a large frame who can fill the holes in the run game and bring lots of strength as the coaching staff.
I think Hunt flashed enough last season to draw the starting spot week one, but don’t be surprised if Mallory is starting games this season.
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