Michigan State capped off its spring practice sessions with the spring kickoff Saturday afternoon. The event featured drills, practices and a few offense vs defense scrimmages.
Naturally, the battle for starting quarterback took center stage, with redshirt senior Payton Thorne, redshirt junior Noah Kim and redshirt freshman Katin Houser each taking some reps throughout the afternoon.
However, there’s more to a college football roster than the guy that throws the ball. And after such a tumultuous 2022-23 season, there were plenty of storylines to keep an eye on during the day’s festivities.
A competitive RB room
Offensively, one of the positions that stuck out the most during the Spring kickoff was running back. Michigan State just seemed to have so many.
Redshirt junior running back Jalen Berger is back for his second season in East Lansing. Leading the team last season in rushing yardage and attempts, Berger is certainly the most proven of the bunch. A few nice runs during Saturday’s scrimmages illustrated as much. But a couple of transfer portal additions should make the battle for carries interesting this season.
Redshirt sophomore Nathan Carter from UConn is an intriguing player. He racked up 578 rushing yards as a freshman with the Huskies, and looked ready to improve on that showing in 2022 before an injury ended his season prematurely.
“He’s got really good explosiveness through the hole, and even acceleration,” head coach Mel Tucker said. “He’s got good vision, he’s got a lot of toughness. He also has really good ball skills.”
MSU also has a bit more experience at the position in redshirt senior Jaren Mangham. The Cass Tech grad jumped from Colorado (while Tucker was coaching) to USF before landing in East Lansing this season.
“I’ve known Jaren for a while, he played for us in Colorado as a true freshman,” Tucker said. “He can make you miss and he can get tough yards after contact. He’s a smart player and he’s got really good ball skills, catching the ball out of the backfield. He understands pass protection as well.”
As shown in Saturday’s spring game, there should be plenty of competition in the running back room this offseason. It’s a battle that will likely carry on well into the season.
The receiving core
One of the few highlights of the event came courtesy of redshirt freshman wide receiver Antonio Gates Jr., who snagged a dime from Kim in the endzone.
Gates is just one of many talented young receivers that will be looking for a breakout season in 2023-24. Despite losing Jayden Reed to the NFL draft in the offseason, Michigan State’s receiving core remains very deep.
“I think the receiver room that we have right now is deep,” Kim said. “We’re a tighter group this year, and I think that all of us have grown. Just physically and mentally, we’re on the same page. We know where they need to be, what depth they need to be on their routes and all that stuff.”
Naturally, junior Keon Coleman tops that pool of talented wide receivers (he was not active on Saturday, although he was in uniform). Behind Coleman, there’s a handful of players with some proven potential that still have room to grow (such as redshirt senior Tre Mosley and senior Montorie Foster Jr.) and a bevy of younger receivers that have already shown flashes of potential (the aforementioned Gates as well as well as sophomore Tyrell Henry).
“We have really good potential in that group,” Tucker said. “We can get a lot of production out of the wide receiver position.”
Last season, depth was an issue for Michigan State’s defense all season. Now, a lot of that was out of the coaching staff’s hands - a plethora of injuries and multiple suspensions aren’t exactly easy to combat, especially in the middle of a season.
However, Tucker and Co. are looking to pre-emptively quell those concerns this offseason through developing a defensive core with the ability to play in multiple positions/situations - aka, improving positional versatility.
“We have some guys that can play multiple positions,” Tucker said. “There’s just more you can do. You can be more comprehensive with the coverages and the pressures.”
A few defenders illustrated that ability during the scrimmages and drills Saturday afternoon. Senior defensive back Angelo Grose played some reps at cornerback after primarily playing safety last season. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Avery Dunn shifted around the line, playing reps at both the edge and the interior. Redshirt senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon was an outside linebacker during spring kickoff; a year ago, he played as an edge rusher and a linebacker.
In summation, it looks like MSU’s coaching staff has a number of defensive players they can shift around the field to best fit the given situation/package.
“We’re trying to take everybody's skills and use them to our advantage,” redshirt junior linebacker Cal Haladay said. “We know what guys can do and can’t do, so we’re going to put those guys in positions to be successful.”