Thursday, February 29, 2024

Resurgence of familiar faces has been key to MSU's early season success

September 30, 2021
<p>Michigan State&#x27;s redshirt senior running back Connor Heyward (11) jumps over Nebraska&#x27;s senior safety Marquel Dismuke (9) on Sept. 25, 2021.</p>

Michigan State's redshirt senior running back Connor Heyward (11) jumps over Nebraska's senior safety Marquel Dismuke (9) on Sept. 25, 2021.

Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

Two years ago, Bryce Baringer was not a part of Michigan State football.

After walking on to the team his freshman year in 2018, Baringer lost his spot when the coaching staff brought in other kickers and punters. He was also not with the team for the 2019 season, working for the team’s media team for the year.

Being cut for the 2019 season did not deter Baringer from working to improve. He said that he continued to practice on his own at Munn Field working on punts and kicks, trying to stay ready for his next chance with MSU. 

“We didn't have the numbers and I knew that,” Baringer said. “It's a business. I mean it is what it is and there's never anything wrong with that by any means. But coach (Mark Dantonio) and coach Tressel, coach Staten, they said, ‘we appreciate everything you've done and you'll do more but just trust yourself’ and that's what I did.”

Despite being denied his dream of being on Michigan State’s team his sophomore year, Baringer continued to work on himself to succeed, staying close to the team as a media assistant for the 2019 season.

“It was never guaranteed that I'd be back,” Baringer said. “It is what it is with some things. But I just tried to stay ready as I could, you know, kind of going back to the whole 2018 thing. I'm just trying to stay ready. So that's just what I did. And thankfully it paid off.”

He returned to the team in 2019 after transfers and players switching to other positions decimated Michigan State’s kicking unit, leaving a spot for Baringer to return. Baringer came back weeks before Dantonio retired, giving him a chance to work with a completely different coaching staff. 

The work from his first stint to his second laid the groundwork for his resurgence as one of the best punters in college football, averaging 50.28 yards a punt, good for fifth-best in the country, as one of the wily veterans of MSU’s team.

“He actually was working with our media team, was taking pictures and doing that on the side, coming in two times a week, just doing that,” Connor Heyward said. “So just to see his journey, our journeys are kind of similar, It's just cool. And for a guy like Bryce who's an awesome guy, it's awesome to see.”

Heyward, much like Baringer, had to reinvent himself and grow personally to reach a point where he could contribute to MSU's football team again. Heyward was the starting running back for MSU going into the 2019 season as a junior before losing his job to Elijah Collins.

Once Heyward lost the role to Collins, it became clear that Heyward was not the first or even second option at running back, he entered his name into the transfer portal, seemingly signaling the end of his time in Green and White.

Heyward decided to remove his name from the portal and came back to the team later that season, finishing out the Dantonio era deep on the depth chart with his role in doubt. Heyward stuck through Mel Tucker's first year in 2020 as a running back behind Collins and Jordon Simmons before making the switch to tight end for his final college season.

The switch to the new position has paid off for Heyward and the Spartans so far this season Heyward has emerged as the team’s top tight end, striking fear into opposing teams with his affinity for running through defenders after catching the ball. 

“I don't feel complacent at all,” Heyward said. “I feel like I'm still earning every rep because that's the culture that coach Tucker's building. It doesn't matter. You're coming in and competing every day.”

The biggest key for Heyward’s success this year, he said, was his personal growth and understanding that he is just one component of the team that has much bigger aspirations that he wants to be a part of.

“I don't care about touching the ball,” Heyward said. “I don't really care, I'm beyond that. I think I've matured as a person and as a player. Old me, I feel like I'd be like, 'why am I not touching the ball!?' But everybody has a role, everybody brings something to the table and I'm just happy to help the team.”

The growth of Heyward and Baringer is a theme that has been present with the veterans of Michigan State’s team this year, whether it is players that stuck around from the Dantonio era or arrived through the transfer portal. 

The team has become a place for players to reinvigorate their playing careers under Tucker, who has preached second chances on the football field. Transfers like Kenneth Walker III and Chester Kimbrough have stolen the spotlight so far with their early-season success, but the remnants of the Dantonio era have been the backbone of the team.

Units like the offensive line and special teams, filled with veterans who played for Dantonio in a mistake-filled 2018 campaign, are making winning plays time and time again to set up Michigan State for victory, or flat-out win the game for them such as against Nebraska.

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“I do believe in transformational coaching to have a positive effect on our players, on and off the field,” Tucker said. “And so we have a group of young men that have bought into what we are doing and believe in our process. They understand that we are a work in progress and we always need to get better. They play hard and they're coachable.”


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