Better or worse? Previewing Michigan State's offense in 2021
The 2020 season probably went as expected for Michigan State, given the nature of the Spartans’ second-choice, late hire in February of a new head coach, weeks before the world shut down.
Growing pains were expected in Year 1 of the Mel Tucker era, and that may be an understatement as the Spartans hobbled to a 2-5 record.
No team scored fewer points in the Big Ten than Michigan State did (18.0) or averaged fewer yards of total offense (330.6). The Spartans hope to have addressed the root of the problem by changing quarterbacks and spending a busy offseason in the transfer portal.
There’s no doubt the offense will be different with all the new faces in 2021 and a routine offseason, but will the offense be a better kind of different? Let’s find out …
Passing game: Better
If nothing else, Spartans fan should expect a much more competent level of quarterback play in 2021. Michigan State ranked in the middle of the Big Ten last season, averaging 238.9 passing yards a game, but turnovers crushed their potential. Only 6 teams in the country had more than Michigan State’s 20 lost turnovers — all teams that played at least 2 more games.
With 2020 6-game starter Rocky Lombardi gone to Northern Illinois, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and Co. turned to the transfer portal to beef up the position and landed one of the better passers on the market in Temple’s Anthony Russo. The former Owl, who threw for close to 6,300 yards and 44 touchdowns in 27 games with Temple, is expected to be the Week 1 starter, but not without some competition.
Payton Thorne received most of his playing time last year at the end of blowouts or when Lombardi had to be pulled for too many turnovers, but in his first start against Penn State to close the season, Thorne put up a strong effort of 325 passing yards and 3 touchdowns to at least put some hesitation in just completely assuming Russo is guaranteed to start.
Whomever Michigan State’s QB is in 2021 just needs to cause less self-inflicted harm — Russo is no stranger to turning the ball over with 32 career interceptions — because the Spartans have one of the more talented receiving corps in the conference.
Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed are exceptional playmakers. The duo finished 6th and 13th, respectively, in the conference in receiving yards per game among qualified receivers.
Behind them is a bevy of options, led by Tre Mosley and Ricky White. Mosley battled injury last year and may be the better receiver of the two, but who could forget White’s performance against Michigan, catching 8 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown in the hallmark win of Tucker’s inaugural season.
Tight end, however, is the offense’s biggest position of weakness. Not much production returns, but keep an eye on early enrollee Kameron Allen, who had a very strong spring, as well 6-5 Purdue transfer Maliq Carr, who could convert from wide receiver.
Protecting the quarterback is a veteran offensive line that returns all 35 starts from 2020, but the line has been an area of weakness the past several seasons due to injuries and coaching change. With so much starting experience back, and a fair amount of replacement-level depth, Michigan State should be at least average protecting the QB.
There’s definitely reason for optimism with Johnson’s offense after a first full offseason of install and the expected development at both the quarterback and receiver positions.
Running game: Better
Any semblance of an old-fashioned Big Ten offense grinding its way to victory on the ground left East Lansing a couple of seasons ago, and 2020 was no exception. Michigan State ranked 13th in the conference as 1 of only 2 teams (Purdue) that failed to average more than 100 yards rushing per game.
Running the ball was supposed to be the one reliable option last year, with Elijah Collins leading the way as the Big Ten’s most productive returning running back. Instead, COVID-19 limited Collins for much of the early parts of the season, and he was usurped by a combination of Connor Heyward and Jordon Simmons.
While none of the trio rushed for more than 4 yards a carry or even recorded a single rushing touchdown, all 3 are back this season and with reinforcements from the transfer portal.
Kenneth Walker III joins the program from Wake Forest after rushing for 13 touchdowns in 2020. He has a legitimate case to be the lead back for 2021 as a dependable rusher who averaged 5.3 yards a carry last season.
Joining the crowded running back room is also former Auburn player Harold Joiner. Joiner will likely be more of a utility man than any of the other contenders and could even find himself lined up at in the slot or tight end.
Special teams: Same
Matt Coghlin is back for a 6th season of eligibility and has been one of the more reliable kickers across the Big Ten during his tenure. Last season he was perfect on extra-point attempts and was 5th in the B1G in field goal percentage, going 9-for-12.
He also had one of my favorite early deals as part of the NIL.
This is a paid tweet to tell you to listen to the Locked On Spartans podcast. I’ve never listened to it, but I’m sure it’s not terrible.
— Matthew Coghlin (@MatthewCoghlin) July 1, 2021
Jayden Reed was the main man for kick returning duties in 2020, and he was fine, but considering his importance to the passing game, Michigan State may be better suited turning to someone other than Reed or Jalen Nailor in 2021.
How could the offense not be better?
Even if Thorne turns out to be the Week 1 starter, he’s an upgrade over the turnover-prone Lombardi. Thorne could have a higher ceiling than Russo, but the former Temple QB’s leadership may be a crucial X-factor in helping lead a team through another year of transition as Tucker continues the rebuild.
With a dynamic duo at receiver and any modicum of improvement at the running back position, the Spartans aren’t going to be some offensive juggernaut, but they should at least find themselves scoring more than 18 points per game and move out of the basement of Big Ten offenses.