“Tuck comin’!” That’s the battle cry at Michigan State under 3rd-year (to-be) coach Mel Tucker, whose Spartans found themselves in the thick of a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff race for a good chunk of the 2021 season.

Finishing 10-2 and beating Michigan was the icing on the cake for the group led by superstar RB Kenneth Walker III. But now, MSU must find a way to live without one of the country’s most prolific rushers and top transfers that the game has seen in years. A 31-21 Peach Bowl victory over Pitt also provided some momentum, so the Spartans can hang their hats on that accomplishment as they prepare to do it all again this fall.

Walker was the unquestioned Franchise Man at MSU this past season. Hell, he was one of the most celebrated players in all of college football and arguably the biggest star in East Lansing since QB Kirk Cousins. And actually, Walker got more attention than Captain Kirk received while in college, so it’s safe to say that he was the most well-known Spartans star in recent history.

But now MSU has to tab a new guy as the “it” player — or maybe a few. For sake of selection, here are 5 players who could take on that role during the upcoming season.

Payton Thorne

In 2021, Thorne set the single-season record for most passing touchdowns at Michigan State, coming in with 27 — 2 more than the previous record of 25 set by Cousins, who is arguably the greatest MSU QB of all time. Thorne also had 3 4-TD games, putting him in the mix for the most single-game TD slings by Spartans signal-callers. The record is 5, courtesy of Drew Stanton. Connor Cook had 4 4-TD games during his career, so Thorne could easily reach more milestones in 2022.

The lineage of star QBs at MSU has been strong during the past 12 years or so, and Thorne is on a direct course to become one of the most celebrated QBs in East Lansing. He’ll likely be the main focus, at least in terms of national appeal, for those watching MSU next season. But he’s not the only player who could command the spotlight.

Jayden Reed

One of the most exciting players in all of college football this past season, Jayden Reed has to be included on this list — he’s spectacularly talented and is capable of flipping a game upside-down in a matter of seconds. The No. 5-ranked WR in the Big Ten in 2021, Reed averaged 78.8 receiving yards per game and scored 10 touchdowns. As a return man, he averaged 23.4 on kickoffs (No. 4 B1G) and 19.8 on punts — and don’t forget those 2 touchdowns, those were major highlights for MSU.

Reed will likely be on a ton of preseason watch lists, both for all-conference and positional honors. With Jalen Nailor having left early for the NFL, Reed should be the unquestioned top receiver for Spartans this fall. He could have opted for the NFL too, but chose to return for another run with the Spartans, so expect an even bigger year than he had this past season.

Maliq Carr

A name that slowly grew in popularity during the late stages of 2021, Maliq Carr might end up being one of those under-the-radar stars at tight end. Connor Heyward showcased the TE position, making it appear exciting and new under Tucker. It’s been a handful of years since the Spartans had a dominant TE, so Heyward was a nice change-of-pace and drew attention to non-WR/QB. Carr, who is also hooping for Spartans coach Tom Izzo, might end up as one of MSU’s most recognizable players this fall.

He started as a running back, moved to H-Back and is now leading the way for the TE group.

Cal Haladay

As a freshman in 2021, Cal Haladay essentially kept the Spartans’ dream season alive with a pick-6 during a 20-15 win at Indiana. Moving to 7-0 after the victory, Michigan State shot up the rankings and made itself known to the national media — not just the reporters inside the Big Ten.

Haladay also had a 78-yard pick-6 for touchdown during the Peach Bowl win over Pitt, ending the season on a high note and certainly being recognized as one of Michigan State’s up-and-coming stars. With a 10-tackle game against Michigan and Western Kentucky, along with a career-high 11 vs. Penn State and Pitt, Haladay deserves consideration for a potential team MVP honor this fall.

Sure, MSU has all kinds of high-flying talent at WR and a pretty solid QB — but don’t forget about the sophomore defensive back this season; he might just end up becoming the cornerstone of the defense, particularly for what was the nation’s worst secondary in 2021.