10 biggest questions I have as Michigan State enters preseason camp
It’d be easy to officially declare 2021 as Year 1 of Mel Tucker, but the now 2nd-year head coach doesn’t want to be let off the hook quite that easily.
Michigan State has a long way to go on its path back to the top of the Big Ten, but it sure feels like progress was made since the 2020 season concluded and the program underwent a total roster and cultural overhaul.
The rebuild continues in 2021 with what are sure to be a litany of growing pains, but these are the 10 most pressing questions facing as the Spartans enter preseason camp …
1. How many games does Anthony Russo start?
It’s feels fairly safe to say that Temple transfer Anthony Russo will be the starting quarterback come Week 1 against Northwestern, but will his level of play demand that that remains status quo by the time the season wraps up?
Payton Thorne played most of his time in 2020 during mop-up duty, but he did look pretty solid in his lone start of the year to end the season against Penn State, throwing for 325 yards and 3 touchdowns in the season-ending loss.
More important than anything this year for the Spartans will be to cut down on turnovers, and Russo isn’t exactly known for ball security, exiting from Temple with 32 career interceptions. If Russo continues to throw the ball to the other team, how quick will Jay Johnson’s trigger be on inserting Thorne in relief?
2. What sort of growing pains are involved with 33 new transfers?
Michigan State has 33 incoming scholarship transfer players, which is just an absolutely insane number to comprehend as Mel Tucker begins the rebuild, removing players he doesn’t feel are a cultural fit for his program, while inviting dozens of new players from outside programs.
The question isn’t whether or not there will be a few hiccups along the way, it’s more a matter of how long it will take to have the team up and running at full speed. It obviously helps that the team will have a normal offseason with no major changes to the coaching staff, but with games against Northwestern and Miami in the first three weeks of the season, there won’t exactly be an easing into the season for the players to work out the kinks.
3. Can the running backs achieve any sort of productivity?
Long gone are the days of Jeremy Langford and Le’Veon Bell, as the Spartans have turned into one of the worst running teams in the country over the last three seasons, ultimately finishing 122nd of 127 FBS teams last season while averaging 91.4 yards rushing per game.
Elijah Collins was irrelevant last season after dealing with COVID-19 complications, and no running back scored a rushing touchdown in 2020 as only tight end Tyler Hunt and quarterback Payton Thorne scored while rushing the ball.
The Spartans added transfer running backs Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest) and Harold Joiner (Auburn) to the team, so the hope is their additions along with a healthy Collins can at least return Michigan State to league average.
4. Who will be the most important transfer on offense?
Tossing it back to the problems at running back, Kenneth Walker III has a real case to be the most productive transfer on the offensive side of the ball. Walker averaged 5.3 yards per carry at Wake Forest and rushed for 13 touchdowns last season.
Maliq Carr is a potential dark horse, as the former Purdue player was originally recruited as a wide receiver, but with the Spartans having no real threat at the tight end position, he’ll be asked to move there. At 6-foot-5, Carr could be a very useful weapon in the passing game if he can smoothly and quickly learn the position.
5. Can Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor be a steady 1-2 punch?
While Michigan State struggled passing the ball in 2020, the pairing of Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor is one of the most explosive pass-catching duos in the Big Ten.
Nailor and Reed were 6th and 13th, respectively, in the conference in receiving yards per game among qualified receivers, and no receiver in the league had more than Nailor’s 5 receptions of at least 40 yards in length.
The duo struggled with consistency, as did the team as a whole, but with a more reliable passer delivering the ball, Reed and Nailor can compete with the top receiving corps on any B1G team on their best day.
6. Who fills the role left by Antjuan Simmons?
This is more of a question about leadership than the actual sizable production role that is left in needing to replace Antjuan Simmons’ team-leading 75 tackles.
The real answer is there isn’t one single player who must be as big of a leader as Simmons, but Xavier Henderson is one of the most experienced players on the defensive side of the ball and plans to take on a much more vocal role this season. With such a lack of roster continuity over the last two seasons, having an easily identifiable leader outside of the coaching staff is crucial for the transition of the program.
7. Are players buying into Mel Tucker’s culture?
Mel Tucker deserved an award for most inspiring speech at Big Ten Media Days, as it was easy to tell from his enthusiasm and statement that Michigan State isn’t just a job to him.
The Spartans struggled with players not fully investing into the team in the latter days of Mark Dantonio, and Tucker made it clear by his roster changeover that he’s not going to keep anyone who’s not willing to buy in.
Rousing speeches, however, only go so far. Will players continue championing Tucker’s spirit both on and off the field if the Spartans continue to struggle on the scoreboard? Only time will tell.
8. Can Michigan State continually land a few blue-chip recruits?
The Spartans will never compete with Ohio State and Penn State and likely never even the Wolverines in their own state, but can Michigan State sign just a few impact prospects each year to help make the rebuild even faster?
We saw Michigan State land 4-star 2021 talent Ma’a Gaoteote while finishing the cycle ranked 45th in the country, and the Spartans have added another 4-star prospect in wide receiver Antonio Gates Jr. for the Class of 2022.
Continuing to pull a few names from the transfer portal is huge, as well. Michigan State will probably always predominantly sign 3-star guys, but the occasional blue-chip is a promising sign for the future.
9. Who can the Spartans surprise this season?
In 2020 it was Michigan in Ann Arbor and Northwestern in East Lansing. If the Spartans are going to continue to flirt with at or below.500 seasons, they need a statement win each season to sell to recruits.
Aside from the obvious date with Michigan that the Spartans will always love to win to show their intra-state dominance, a date with Miami at Hard Rock Stadium would be the perfect game to steal as far as national attention goes. The Hurricanes won’t be the best team Michigan State faces this year, but beating The U in their own stadium would go a long way into announcing Michigan State’s presence to recruits all across the country.
10. What is success for Michigan State in 2021?
Last year the Spartans finished 2-5 and last in the Big Ten East. This season Michigan State was picked to again finish last in the division by media members at Big Ten Media Days and only Illinois received fewer votes than the Spartans across the conference.
If Tuckers wants to demonstrate progress outside of culture off the field, the Spartans need to be much more consistent than they were in 2020, defeating a ranked Northwestern team one week and losing by 42 to Iowa in another.
The realistic hope is that Michigan State probably wins two conference games against some combination of Rutgers, Maryland and/or Nebraska and then picks up a pair of non-conference wins against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. Granted, 4-8 seems like a low goal to shoot for, so let’s say the Spartans should cross their fingers for one of those big upsets and finish the year at 5-7.