The previous two Michigan State offseasons contained some of the program’s most abundant question marks in the last decade.
First, in 2020, Mel Tucker was MSU’s first head coach in 13 years following the retirement of Mark Dantonio. How would Tucker mold the team in his first year after shading Colorado? There were the dark days of the pandemic too, requiring virtual recruitment and barring fans from stadiums. For a short period, the Big Ten wasn’t even planning on playing games that fall.
Then, in 2021, the Spartans grabbed a myriad of players from the transfer portal with many players departing too. Tucker never showed his hand for his plans at quarterback as Payton Thorne and Anthony Russo battled for the starting job. There was also the question of how much could be taken from the Spartans’ 2-5 season and which weighed more: MSU’s wins against Michigan and Northwestern, the Big Ten West champion, or the five losses all by at least 11 points?
Michigan State exceeded just about everyone’s expectations last fall, sporting an 11-2 record and a Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh, leaving one overarching question: Can it be done again?
MSU coaches and players certainly believe so, but the general public tends to think otherwise. Losing Kenneth Walker III, the Doak Walker Award winner and Walter Camp National Player of the Year, is monumental and cannot be replaced by just one player.
We’re exactly one month away from Michigan State’s opening matchup versus Western Michigan, with training camp opening this week. Here are six essential questions to investigate with the season on the horizon:
1. How will the running back touches be split up?
This fall may be quite telling of how impactful Walker was for Michigan State’s offense. It was day and night compared to the Spartans’ putrid production from the running backs in 2020. Expecting MSU to fall all the way down back to that level is extreme, but regression is in the future. It just depends on how much.
Michigan State coaches feel confident with what they have. That feels like a safe bet to back. The Spartans grabbed two good running backs from the transfer portal: an experienced back in Colorado’s Jarek Broussard and a young, former high school four-star in Wisconsin’s Jalen Berger.
Broussard, a graduate student, was the 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 895 yards and five touchdowns in six games. His production dipped in 2021 as Colorado won just four games, but the Spartans believe he can return to his 2020 form with the more talented roster MSU provides.
Berger was a consensus four-star recruit and Wisconsin’s leading rusher in 2020. However, he appeared in just three games last season before being dismissed from the program and transferring to Michigan State.
Then there is redshirt freshman Davion Primm, who based on how coaches and players raved in the spring, may have worked his way into the rotation. He’s yet to see a snap on the field and was a three-star high school recruit.
Lots of experienced veterans return too. Junior Jordon Simmons was Walker’s backup last year and averaged four yards per carry. Redshirt senior Elijah Collins nearly ran for 1,000 yards in 2019. Redshirt senior Harold Joiner was MSU’s main third down back in 2021.
Broussard probably has the slight edge even though he wasn’t with the team during spring practices. There’s a chance he begins repping with the second team when training camp opens. Berger should demand his snaps too and could be in for a 50-50 timeshare with Broussard. It will also be interesting to see how Primm, Simmons, Joiner and/or Collins can break into the mix too.
2. Can Payton Thorne take the next step?
Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne far exceeded expectations in his first gig as the full time starter last year, yet not many people are talking about it.
Did he benefit greatly in play action from having Walker in the backfield? Yes, but Thorne still broke Michigan State’s single-season passing touchdown record with 27 and threw for 3,233 yards, the third most in program history. That means something. He was arguably a top-three quarterback in the Big Ten last year and Thorne nearly wasn’t named MSU’s starting quarterback to start the year.
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He has an extremely strong rapport with wide receiver Jayden Reed, who opted to return to East Lansing for his redshirt senior season. He was a third-team All-Big Ten selection as a wide receiver, and one more year of the two together may push them to new heights.
Without Walker, Michigan State now turns to Thorne to lead the offense. He’s got the skillset to do it and appears to be taking steps as a leader too. The offense will still be based around the run game, but Thorne may be asked to do a bit more in 2022. He had a few moments where he wasn’t sharp in 2021, but made a handful of big time throws when needed.
3. How does the rebuilt offensive line fair?
Aiding Walker to his historic season was a veteran offensive line that also had enough depth to rotate its second team guys and still yield positive results. That probably won’t be the case this year, unless a few unproven guys step up.
The right side of the line in particular will be completely rebuilt with three starters departed: center Matt Allen, right guard Kevin Jarvis and right tackle A.J. Arcuri. MSU also lost depth pieces in Blake Bueter and Luke Campbell.
Senior center Nick Samac is on track to take the starting job after seeing 307 snaps last year with Washington State graduate transfer Brian Greene penciling in at right guard and redshirt junior Spencer Brown at right tackle. Greene started 10 games for Washington State over the last two years while Brown earned his first career start in last year’s Peach Bowl. Sixth year guard Matt Carrick certainly will be in the mix too and may even win a starting job, but he’s coming off a major injury, so there’s no telling how he will look post-surgery. Nobody outside those six have taken a snap in college.
A plethora of injuries also hamstrung Michigan State during spring ball, limiting what could be done in live scrimmages. Carrick, Duplain and Horst were among those injured for the entirety of the spring, making it difficult to read what MSU has in its offensive linemen, especially the younger players.
Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said in the beginning of the spring that the offensive line was the most important group in need of development and this week begins the quest toward trotting out a healthy, effective offensive line in September.
4. How much can the pass defense improve?
Haunting Michigan State in 2021 was a pass defense that ranked among the worst in the country. The group continued to crumble all season long and was a big part in MSU’s losses to Ohio State and Purdue.
The pass defense flat out has to be better this fall. But Tucker admitted the good news at Big Ten Media Day: the pass coverage can’t get much worse than it was.
Harlon Barnett now oversees the entire secondary following the departure of former cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman and Tucker said he will spend some more time working with the defensive backs. The two will have their hands on a very similar group to last year, outside of Georgia transfer cornerback Ameer Speed who is expected to be an immediate contributor after winning a national championship as part of Georgia's historically dominant defense.
Outside of Speed, every other major contributor from last year returns, which is a bit of a gamble. Michigan State is hoping last season wasn’t the true talent of the likes of fifth-year Ronald Williams, senior Chester Kimbrough, redshirt sophomore Marqui Lowery and more. If MSU can jump to at least an average pass defense, it would do wonders. They probably would’ve beaten Purdue and been at least competitive versus Ohio State.
5. How big of an impact does Brandon Jordan make in year one?
It’s not too often where you think of a position coach having an immense impact on a team. But new pass rush specialist Brandon Jordan has a different aurora surrounding him.
His coaching resume is sparse, but his ascendance as a personal trainer is what has gotten East Lansing buzzing about the hire.
Jordan has worked with nearly 200 NFL players all across the country, including some of the best in the world. He’s brought in numerous NFL players to train at Michigan State’s facility, exposing MSU’s roster to stars such as Von Miller, Chandler Jones, T.J. Watt and Danielle Hunter.
Michigan State’s pass rush was solid last year before Jordan’s arrival, but Jordan should only help. It will be intriguing to see what his role will be on gameday and any unique wrinkles he can craft. The Spartans lost two key edge rushers in Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk, but return junior defensive end Jeff Pietrowski who accumulated 5.5 sacks last season, as well as adding some promising pass rushers in the transfer portal.
Anything to boost MSU’s pass defense is a welcome idea, especially if it is as soon as this year.
6. Can Michigan State get steady execution from the kicker position?
It’s been ages since the kicker position was a headline going into the season, but Matt Coghlin has exhausted his six years of eligibility and has parted ways with Michigan State after five incredible seasons in East Lansing.
Coghlin is a five-time All-Big Ten honoree, setting the school record with 382 career points and 76 made field goals while also connecting on all 148 career PATs. Five of the 76 field goals were game-winners, with the most recent in overtime versus Nebraska last fall. He also had a remarkable run early in his career, hitting 18 consecutive field goals across the 2017 and 2018 season, the fourth-longest streak in conference history.
But Michigan State got a taste of kicking duties without Coghlin when he missed time and was limited for a handful of games in the second half last fall. Then-freshman Stephen Rusnak took over as the kicker, but it severely hampered MSU’s gameplan. Rusnak missed his lone field goal attempt versus Purdue and made four of five extra points while also splitting kickoff duties with redshirt junior tight end/kicker Evan Morris.
Rusnak will battle it out with freshman Jack Stone, who was one of the top high school kicking prospects in the 2022 class. Stone probably has the early edge, but it will depend on how the two compete in training camp.
Michigan State needs either one of them to be serviceable, otherwise MSU could be in for quite the stressful season.
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