Each week heading into the fall football season for MSU, The State News will be taking a look into each position group on Mel Tucker’s roster as the Spartans prepare for their third season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Sam Sklar dives into who is likely to replace longtime MSU kicker Matt Coghlin.
It’s been five long years since Michigan State has had any doubt at its kicker position. That’s how great Matt Coghlin was.
Consistent, clutch and, mostly, durable.
The new MSU all-time points leader is now gone, leaving a wrinkle for special teams coordinator Ross Els.
And it could be a big one. Teams never want their kicker to be in the news cycle. It typically means someone missed a big kick or there is uncertainty of a kicker’s capabilities.
Those topics popped up in the second half last season when Coghlin missed one game and was very limited in four others. It altered MSU’s game plans and forced the Spartans to be more aggressive on fourth down – which actually paid off, but that won’t always be the case. Not once did Michigan State have to trot out then-freshman kicker Stephen Rusnak or Evan Johnson, who is no longer on the team, with queasy stomachs and the game on the line.
Then, with Bryce Baringer, it’s pretty rare to have your punter as one of your best players – unless it’s Rutgers’ Adam Korsak. Baringer was that dude. MSU has to feel pretty comfortable with him returning for a sixth season.
With that being said, let’s not waste any more time and get into the breakdown you’ve all been waiting for: Michigan State’s specialists.
K Jack Stone
Stone is the favorite to win the starting kicker role, but the job won’t just be handed over to him.
He’s an incoming freshman from Dallas and was ranked as one of the top kicking prospects in the country. Stone didn’t attempt many field goals in high school, but over 70% of his kickoffs were touchbacks and he averaged 40 yards per punt. Although, he wasn’t an early enrollee so he will have to pry the starting duty away from Rusnak, but that is the expectation.
K Stephen Rusnak
Rusnak is a Clarkston, Michigan native who had to make some surprise appearances in relief of Coghlin as a true freshman last fall. He made four of his five extra point attempts while missing his lone field goal attempt that came in his first appearance versus Purdue. Rusnak was effective on kickoffs with 54.3 average yards on 21 attempts and is the main challenger to Stone.
He’s got the experience edge, but Rusnak is fighting an uphill battle.
K Evan Morris
Morris, the redshirt junior tight end and kicker, has been limited to a paltry 15 kickoffs in three seasons. 11 of them came in 2019 with a 59.9 average and four came in 2021, all in the snow versus Penn State. He’s probably more of a kicker than a tight end, but likely will only see playing time if there are injuries to Stone and/or Rusnak.
P Bryce Baringer
Baringer had a breakout season in 2021 in his second season as the full-time punter. He set a school record with a 48.4-yard single-season punting average, which also was the second best in Big Ten History. It earned him a spot on the Ray Guy Award Watch List in October, which he then followed with a 69-yard punt versus Maryland and a booming 74-yard punt at Ohio State, one of the very, very few highlights of the afternoon.
Baringer has already picked up a couple preseason conference honors this summer and is primed for another standout season.
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Had Baringer not opted to stay at MSU for one last season, Eckley likely would be the starter, given that he’s the only other punter on the roster besides sixth-year tight end Tyler Hunt, who started five games as punter in 2018. Eckley is a 2022 freshman walk-on and could see the field if Baringer were to miss time.
LS Hank Pepper
It’s not too often a long snapper earns a full-ride scholarship before arriving on campus, but Pepper was highly desired by Michigan State and it paid off in full. Pepper took over as the starting long snapper before the season and played in all 13 games with zero cause for concern. He even made a tackle when MSU missed a 60-yard field goal.
Long snappers won’t ever win you games, but it certainly can lose you games. The Spartans obviously like what was done by Pepper as a true freshman. And before you ask: no, he’s not related to former Michigan State and San Francisco 49ers’ long snapper Taybor Pepper.
LS Michael Donovan
Donovan is a redshirt freshman who did not see any game action in 2021. He joined MSU as a walk-on and provides depth should anything happen to Pepper.
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