5 offseason priorities for Michigan State football in 2021
Any semblance of a normal offseason will be a well-received change of pace for Mel Tucker after a nearly nonexistent one in 2020. Two wins is never the goal, but given the up-hill sledding Michigan State was granted, the Spartans did show some encouraging signs for the future.
Progress in Year 2 under Tucker will mean qualifying for a bowl game, but there’s still plenty of work to do in order to achieve that. These are the 5 pressing offseason priorities Michigan State must address if the Spartans are to take a step forward next season:
1. Establish an identity
Michigan State under Tucker still lacks a brand. Who are the Spartans? Are they going to grind out wins with a strong defense like Northwestern or be more of a high-flying offense like Purdue? It was near impossible for Tucker to build his ideal team given the lack of an offseason and wacky schedule, but what Michigan State showed against Northwestern and Michigan provided a peek at the team’s potential.
The Spartans certainly have the explosive receiving weapons to approach something of a splashy offense. But the way Tucker recruited the offensive line, including Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst, paired with the return of RB Jordon Simmons and the arrival of Auburn transfer RB Harold Joiner, makes me think OC Jay Johnson will opt for something a little more conservative, with a game-managing QB who avoids turnovers better than Rocky Lombardi did.
Defensively, Scottie Hazelton will need to recruit more versatile athletes than what he inherited in order to outfit his 4-2-5 defense properly. The corners will need to be fast and the linebackers built more like safeties to cover ground. Hazelton will need a big defensive line that can win its battles without much help.
2. Use the transfer portal, and use it some more
Tucker may have not gotten a fair start on the 2021 recruiting class, but he’s on an equal playing field when it comes to using the transfer portal. While the Spartans have already had over a dozen players enter the portal, they’ve also added 4 in the way of the aforementioned Horst and Joiner, QB Anthony Russo and DE Drew Jordan.
Michigan State has a few positions of need remaining that likely won’t be answered with any February commitments, so the portal will be the best option. The linebacker group has the biggest hole, which I’ll address next, but the Spartans could also use some corner help with the departures of Shakur Brown, Julian Barnett, Davion Williams and Chris Jackson, as well some added depth behind defensive ends Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk. Another tight end wouldn’t hurt either.
3. Address the LB position
The linebacker position will be Michigan State’s biggest uncertainty headed into the 2021 season. Not only are the Spartans losing an all-timer in Antjuan Simmons, but 4 additional linebackers (Marcel Lewis, Jeslord Boateng, Luke Fulton and Charles Willekes) have entered the transfer portal.
That leaves Noah Harvey and Chase Kline as the only returning players with any meaningful experience. The Spartans have some young players who have potential, most notably the prize of their 2021 class, Ma’a Gaoteote, but they will all need time before they are up to Big Ten speed.
Not only will Harvey and Kline need to progress in 2021, but it’d be prudent for Michigan State to grab another LB from the portal. An obvious answer would be Ma’a’s older brother, Palaie, who entered the transfer portal from USC, but a brother bond may not be enough to pull him to East Lansing. Would Jordan Anthony from rival Michigan be willing to play for the Spartans?
4. Settle on a QB
As with seemingly every program around FBS, there’s no real clear answer on who the Spartans will start at QB next season. Temple transfer Anthony Russo seems to be the obvious answer given that he has 26 starts and numerous program records during his career at Temple, but Payton Thorne is the incumbent.
With Lombardi off to the portal, Thorne is the most experienced QB outside of Russo. He played competent football when given the opportunity at the end of the season. Michigan State should have 3 other QBs behind those 2 in Theo Day, Noah Kim and freshman Hampton Faye, but none will likely make any noise in 2021.
In the end, Michigan State should go with Russo, who seems to be the game manager the offense needs. He was a 68% passer last season with the Owls, but he’ll need to cut down on interceptions if he intends to keep the job.
5. Win the spring
If all things go well with the virus, this will be the first offseason Tucker and his staff are able to have with their players. That’s huge not from just a strength and development perspective, but also from a strategic standpoint. Most notably on defense, Michigan State started playing better as the players had more experience in Hazelton’s system.
Any players Tucker recruited to fit his team will all be freshmen, so any and all development they can achieve in the offseason will be huge. Tucker also has the next 6 weeks to put any finishing touches on this year’s recruiting class to address some of those remaining positional needs. The biggest potential win of February will be if 4-star DT Rayshaun Benny keeps his promise and signs with Michigan State.