During Big Ten Media days, the name former MSU running back Kenneth Walker III was floated many times. After racking up award after award and touchdown after touchdown, Walker cemented himself as one of the greatest running backs to wear the green and white.
Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker made one thing clear in Indianapolis: there are no Kenneth Walker IIIs growing on trees. Players that allow for a flea flicker to be a routinely successful play aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. There is no replacing that.
One way or another, if Michigan State wants to replicate its success from a year ago, they will need to find new ways to score the football and create explosive plays. The roster, while filled with talent, does not have an individual guy as of now that will be able to make up for 1,725 yards and 19 touchdowns.
However, there is one player who is taking it upon himself to create accountability on offense to match that level of production: junior quarterback Payton Thorne.
“I've always said the quarterback has been the one competitor,” Tucker said. “I don't believe there's anyone who's gonna out compete (Thorne) on our team. That leadership piece and not just leading by example, it’s really not leading. It's really leading for him to step up and get out of his comfort zone and really make a conscious effort and be intentional about coaching his team. There's a huge step in the right direction and you actually really need that at the quarterback position.”
Thorne, a coach's son, has always been a leader of sorts. At a young age, people around him told him he had the ability to lead. However, when Thorne came to Michigan State, that role as a leader changes. He took the effort and said he tried to lead in his unit that he lead, his practice squad or in the classroom during projects.
With a year under his belt as a starter, Thorne’s role expands to the top man in the building behind Tucker. The one alongside the coaching staff that will be responsible for ensuring the offense remains accountable and hungry to have the offense put points on the board.
“Having that title throughout the whole offseason gives me the opportunity to work with our guys a little bit differently because I can say stuff to guys and they know, okay this is our quarterback telling me this, not this is maybe our quarterback telling me this.”
Thorne has embraced holding his team accountable so much so, that it even extends to individual drills. Tucker outlined a time when Thorne went as far as stopping a drill because some of his teammates’ feet were not behind the line before a drill.
“Someone's got to confront that and so if it's not one of the players, it's going to be a coach,” Tucker said. “Once you get the players doing that, especially your quarterback, now you're cooking with gas.”
Since his arrival in East Lansing, that has been the one thing both the Mark Dantonio and Tucker coaching staff have pointed to as his strength. It’s evident on the field as well in moments even as a young player who was making his first snaps as a Spartan.
But Reed, as everyone knows, has seen it for a long time. As best friends, the two have always pushed each other to be better. But even Reed acknowledged that the pace Thorne is taking this year has pushed the team as whole to be held accountable.
“You become who you surround yourself with,” Reed said. “Being around guys like him makes other people want to be great as well. We've always pushed each other. Every time we workout with each other, we push each other, we compete all the time. We think that that is our standard. If it's not your best, you should rest.”
Time will tell whether that accountability will produce results akin or better than last year’s production. Reed pointed to a few of the wide receivers that aim to make an impact this season, most notably sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman, who nearly everyone at media days praised. Coleman was portrayed as someone who was flashing athleticism and seems poised to have a breakout year.
Senior safety Xavier Henderson also noted that Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger was someone who surprised him during camp. He mentioned that he wasn’t sure whether Berger was worth all the hype he was garnering as he looked at him in pads, but learned quite quickly that Berger was legit, pointing to a slick spin move and as a guy that was incredibly hard to bring down even after making contact.
The offensive line will be the ultimate X-factor for this team as it loses a ton of experienced depth and will turn to young freshmen and sophomores to take snaps despite not getting them a year ago.
Those questions will start to be answered on Sept. 2 against his father, Western Michigan offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne, when the Spartans open the season. However, Thorne maintained that while it will clearly be a unique opportunity, trash talk has remained low between the two.
For Thorne, his focus remains at the the team level.
“We haven't won the Big Ten Championship since 2015 and that's too long,” Thorne said. “Like Coach said, 11 and two last year doesn't put any wins in the win column this year. We're not carrying any over. It's 0–0 right now.”
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