After a spectacular 2021 season that saw the Spartans as College Football Playoff contenders, Michigan State football took a step backward this year.
Finishing with a 5-7 record, the team will need to make some serious adjustments during the off-season if they hope to become competitive again.
If this season proved anything, it's that the Spartans have to be ready for anything. Here are some key aspects of the team to keep an eye on as they enter the offseason.
Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne got the start in all 12 games this season, but didn’t bring the same level of production he brought in 2021. After setting the school record for most touchdown passes in a single season with 27, Thorne finished this season with 19 and didn’t throw more than two touchdowns against a Big Ten opponent.
Despite the less than stellar finish from the team this year, Thorne believes he still learned a lot from the season.
“As you guys saw, we threw the ball over the top quite a bit and obviously that had a lot to do with us having the best player in the country in the backfield,” Thorne said. “This year teams are playing deeper. They’re taking the deep ball away.”
Because of these defensive adjustments, he’s been forced to work on improving a different aspect of his game.
“For me, I’ve been able to get a lot of work at throwing the ball in the intermediate stuff and over the middle and I feel like I’ve really progressed well in that throughout the season and that’ll definitely be something that’ll carry over,” Thorne said.
Although Head Coach Mel Tucker made it clear throughout the season that he has complete faith in his starting quarterback, the Spartans could open up competition for the starting job, depending on the progress of redshirt sophomore quarterback Noah Kim and freshman quarterback Katin Houser.
Kim served as the backup quarterback this season and Houser is a four-star recruit who enrolled early at MSU to get a jumpstart on his playing career. While it’s unlikely either of them will get the start over Thorne, it will be interesting to see if they open up the spot for competition come spring.
Secondary switch up
The secondary has been a weak spot for the Spartans. Even during their breakout 11-2 season, their secondary was a big part in what held them back. Coming into 2022, the biggest unknown was if it could improve to a competitive level.
Amongst other aspects of the team, the secondary proved early on that they weren't ready to take it to this next level. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton addressed the issue following MSU’s second straight loss against Minnesota in which sixth-year quarterback Tanner Morgan threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
“Is it a personnel problem? No,” Hazelton said. “We have players in the room that are tough, that are physical. They work like crazy. Those guys work at an exceptional rate and they grind everyday at practice.”
The Spartan secondary will have to find a way to improve this off-season without veteran leader, fifth-year safety Xavier Henderson. Although Henderson’s shoes will be hard to fill, the return of junior linebacker Darius Snow from injury could provide a well-needed boost to the defense as a whole. Assuming he’s physically able to return to the field, he’ll likely play a big role this off-season.
It’s also not a bad idea to keep an eye on the transfer portal to see if Tucker will find talent there as MSU attempts to reach a competitive level once again.
Run game in need of revitalization
While it’s unfair to expect the same level of production following star running back Kenneth Walker III’s departure to the NFL, MSU’s ground game still needed some work this season.
The trio of running backs, redshirt senior Elijah Collins, fifth-year Jarek Broussard and redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger were able to string together scoring drives, but just not at the level of production needed to be competitive.
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Tucker addressed the run game following a 49-20 loss at home against Ohio State.
“The vast majority of runs that we call and run are efficient,” Tucker said. “We do have plays that everyone does in college football now that is a run-pass option and it’s based upon what you see if you actually hand the ball off or you do throw the pass option. We may call more runs that are just call it and run it.”
Out of the trio, Berger could be the only one still with the team next season, as Broussard and Collins have yet to announce if they will utilize their remaining eligibility. Likely, Tucker and his staff will have to go into the transfer portal for a running back and hope to have the same luck they had with Walker if they hope to give the offense a much-needed boost during the off season.
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