Tuesday, September 28, 2021

As season opener nears, many starting positions remain unknown for MSU football

September 2, 2021
<p>Head Coach Mel Tucker directs drills during MSU football&#x27;s opening day of spring practice on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.</p>

Head Coach Mel Tucker directs drills during MSU football's opening day of spring practice on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

Photo by Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications | The State News

With the beginning of the season just days away, many question marks still remain for what the 2021 Michigan State football team is going to look like.

In a sense, there were outstanding questions last year too, especially given Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker’s first season at MSU. What would a Tucker-coached Big Ten team look like? How would they perform in an awkward pandemic season?

What we do know is this team appears to be more talented than last year’s, at least on paper. They brought in 20 transfers and an entire recruiting class of 2021. These are Tucker’s guys, not former head coach Mark Dantonio’s. All guys Tucker believes have a home on this team and can make a positive impact. 

Even with that knowledge, some of the more simple questions are yet to be answered. Who will be playing quarterback? How will the running back carries be divided up? Who’s playing cornerback? All questions that perhaps would have been answered at this point in the season by previous regimes, such as Dantonio. 

There was slight optimism that Tucker could possibly announce who the starting quarterback would be at Northwestern, but given all the answers to that exact question he had given all offseason, it was not too surprising to hear Tucker refuse to name either graduate student Anthony Russo or redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne as the starter Tuesday afternoon.

“We still have a few more days to prepare ourselves,” Tucker said when asked if he had a starting quarterback picked. “We are still in discussion and determination and then we will move forward.”

The Spartans’ week 1 opponent, Northwestern, also had a fall camp quarterback battle. However, they took a different approach announcing senior Hunter Johnson as the starting quarterback on Aug. 17 over sophomore Ryan Hilinski. 

A similar question is present for the players who will be standing behind the quarterback on the field. The Spartans have considerable depth at the running back position, which is a good problem to have.

“We have like four or five backs that can play,” Tucker said. “They can carry the mail for us, tow the rock. We like to keep fresh backs. We need guys to be able to hit the holes that are there and be able to break tackles and fall forward on contact.”

Tucker did not comment on who those four to five running backs will be, but two of the running backs certainly should be in the mix.

The one who is receiving the most excitement is junior Kenneth Walker III. A transfer from Wake Forest, Walker ran for 579 yards in seven games last year, but his most impressive feat was the 13 rushing touchdowns. With an astonishing zero combined rushing touchdowns from running backs in 2020 for MSU, having someone who has a knack for finding the endzone should help.

Then there is redshirt junior Elijah Collins, who broke out in 2019 with 988 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. Last year, he struggled with the effects of COVID-19 and it impacted his production on the field, limiting him to just 90 yards on the season. However, reports have been positive in camp and he could be extremely impactful if he is able to return to his 2019 self. 

After those two, it gets a tad blurrier. Redshirt junior Harold Joiner, a transfer from Auburn, offers a unique skill set standing at 6-foot-4-inches, potentially helping the Spartans on the goal line. Sophomore Jordon Simmons led the team in rushing last year with 219 yards, so he has earned his spot in the rotation too. 

On the other side of the ball, uncertainty remains with the secondary too. Senior Xaiver Henderson has his spot locked up at the safety position. We know that. Besides him, we are not quite sure how the four other positions will be filled with the Spartans’ five defensive back scheme. 

At cornerback, senior Ronald Williams, a transfer from Alabama, provides the most potential to be a shutdown cornerback, at least for this season. It would not be surprising to see him lineup against Northwestern’s No. 1 wideout Friday night. There is also redshirt junior Kalon Gervin, who made strides in 2020. He is in the mix with another transfer, junior Chester Kimbrough from Florida. 

On the back end joining Henderson, safeties Michael Dowell and Angelo Grose should be in the running to get significant playing time. Grose, a sophomore who now embodies the nickname “Sugar Weasel”, made four starts at nickleback in 2020. Dowell, a redshirt junior, tied for second among MSU defensive backs with 27 tackles in 2020. 

However in camp, Grose and Dowell have appeared to swap positions with Dowell playing more nickelback and Grose playing more safety. 

“Coach [Harlon] Barnett and coach [Travares] Tillman are two great defensive backs coaches,” Dowell said. “They really tried to preach and coach to us where it’s kind of like I said, everyone knows the same positions...I feel good about being nickel, safety or whatever it is and not everyone in the room feels that same way.”

While it may seem as if Tucker and his team are perhaps underprepared for the season with these question marks, the idea of not revealing who is playing where and when might just be a strategy the team has picked up. Some of these decisions may have already been made.

When asked about whether or not the two quarterbacks or the rest of the team know who is starting, Tucker said “they may know,” meaning the decision may have already been made.

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For the green and white, it is all about gaining any sort of advantage possible, especially when trying to improve upon a two-win season. Tucker has realized that, which likely explains his reasoning for dodging and weaving questions revolving depth charts. 

"You don't want to do anything to give your opponent any type of an advantage," Tucker said, “You don't want to put your team at a disadvantage by the type of information you communicate and put out there. Everything that we do is about our team. What’s best for our players, our team, our organization.”

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