Michigan State fans got their first glimpse at the prospective football roster Saturday afternoon during the Spartans’ open practice inside Spartan Stadium.
MSU football ran a normal practice with both position drills and full-team live drills with the offense going against the defense with somewhere between 10 to 20 thousand fans in attendance. MSU opted to not have a traditional spring game this year because the team has serious attrition at the offensive line and only had eight available to play today.
The structure of the spring event along with frigid winds produced a more subdued atmosphere, but fans and the dozens of high-profile recruits in attendance still got a first-hand account of Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker’s well-oiled football machine and how it operates.
“It was really good,” Tucker said. “We got a lot of good work in today. Practice 15 was what we expected from our guys. Everybody's working hard to get better today.”
It also allowed many of the new faces that have joined the team to get their debut in the green and white with fans in attendance. Freshmen made their first public appearances collegiately and transfers like Ameer Speed and Jalen Berger displayed their talents to a whole new fanbase.
Here are three takeaways from the Spartans’ final practice of the spring:
MSU got creative defensively
Junior safety Darius Snow was an every-down player for the Michigan State defense last year. He quickly rose to starting nickel back in the first month of the season and was a key cog in stopping the run from outside the box and coverage over the middle.
Going into this year, the coaching staff challenged Snow with learning a new position, linebacker. Snow has spent the past month learning the ins and outs of linebacking and showed his new talents on Saturday. Snow flipped between nickel and weakside linebacker during live reps and made impactful plays from both positions in the practice all day.
“I'm just gonna call myself a football player because I can play everything so I'm just gonna say football player,” Snow said.
Fellow senior defensive back Chester Kimbrough, who exclusively played outside corner in his first year with MSU, took snaps at nickel back and safety and will continue to play all over the secondary.
“Nickel and strong safety are two really similar positions,” senior safety Xavier Henderson said. “Nickel is just out of the box more and they get a lot of action and Chester has come a long way really. I think we saw him make a couple of tackles today and last year we were trying to get Chester to tackle better.”
In terms of scheme, MSU ran a lot of different personnel in the front seven to confuse the offensive line and see different combinations of players. MSU experimented with a three-man front with three linebackers, flexing defensive ends like junior Jeff Pietrowski in at defensive tackle, and using linebackers like senior Jacoby Windmon as stand-up defensive ends to add more speed to the pass rush.
The goal of the changes, Snow said, was to increase the defense’s speed all around the field.
“I think that the versatility amongst the linebackers, and the safeties as well, is big because this allows us to be faster as a defense and we showcased that today,” Snow said.
It’s going to take an army to replace Kenneth Walker III
It’s no secret that what made MSU tick as a team last year was located in the legs of junior running back Kenneth Walker III. Walker was the playmaker, the security blanket and heart and soul of MSU’s 11-2 team last season and is now off to the NFL to cash in on his mystifying and magical talents.
“Ken is a guy that you're not gonna see every day,” redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne said. “He's the best player I've probably ever seen. He possesses a skill set that you really don't see very often.”
MSU now has to find a way to replace a portion of his massive contributions to the offense. As it stands right now, MSU does not have a running back that has the same type of talent to carry the offense on its shoulders, but it does have a deep stable of talent in the backfield.
During the open practice, redshirt senior Elijah Collins was the first running back to get action and looked like his elusive self from his freshman year in 2019. Berger looked as advertised with a unique blend of size and speed with the ball in his hands. Redshirt freshman running back Davion Primm, who received the “player alert” label from Tucker last week as a game-changer, looked like the best pass-catching back and was explosive in his cuts. Workhorse junior Jordon Simmons also got reps and looked faster than last year while maintaining his strength.
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“It's gonna be a little different this year,” Thorne said. “I still think we got good players. I think that the guys we have right now are solid players.”
These running backs, along with Colorado transfer junior Jarek Broussard, who hasn’t arrived on campus yet, are all trying to stake claim to the starting position. However, whoever starts will not have to do everything Walker did because it will be produced by a committee this year.
MSU has running backs with every type of skill set that’s desired at that position and can ride whoever is hot or matches up well with the opposing defense but will need to find some sort of plan to try to replicate some of Walker’s impact.
MSU’s biggest question coming into the spring is still unanswered
After graduating four of the five starters on the offensive line, MSU’s biggest question without a doubt is whether or not the offensive line can be good enough to let MSU’s talent on offense thrive.
Last year, the line was not dominant by any means but was successful enough to help produce an offensive renaissance for the Spartans. Those players are now gone and some of their most likely replacements were injured and could not participate in most of the spring practices, including Saturday.
“We're banged up, obviously, in the offensive line,” Tucker said. “For the guys that could play, they went out there and gave a good effort and that's what we want to see.”
Senior center Nick Samac and redshirt junior right tackle Spencer Brown both participated in the open practice and will likely step up into starting roles at those positions in the fall. The rest of the offensive line was redshirt sophomore Brandon Baldwin at left tackle, redshirt freshman Kevin Wigenton at left guard and redshirt sophomore Dallas Fincher at right guard.
Baldwin, Fincher and Wigenton are most likely going to be reserves, but because of the absence of redshirt senior left tackle Jarrett Horst, senior left guard J.D. Duplain, sixth year right guard Matt Carrick, played nearly all of the reps in the open practice.
The offensive line struggled overall to keep the defensive line in front of them, but it's hard to tell whether that says more about the offensive or defensive line at this moment. The questions around the offensive line have only increased after the first month of practice, especially since the severity of the injuries is unknown.
If MSU can return with a fully healthy offensive line in the fall, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact that will have on both facets of the offense. But until that moment, the questions continue to swirl.
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