This past season, Michigan State was right in the thick of a Big Ten title race before Purdue ended its dreams.

Hey, it happens. The Boilers have kind of made a habit out of playing the spoiler, haven’t they?

The Spartans didn’t get a slice of the Big Ten pie (that was all Michigan’s), but they did finish the season with a 31-21 victory over Pitt in the Peach Bowl, putting themselves in position to make another run at a conference crown this fall. However, before any of that can be done, the Spartans have to figure out some things during spring — and Saturday, they’ll have a chance to knock off some rust and provide a preview of what’s to come this fall.

Of course, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks and receivers. The Spartans have Payton Thorne throwing the ball, but they’ll have to find a way to replace star WR Jalen Nailor. Kenneth Walker III, the nation’s top running back one year ago, will also be missed by Michigan State, which has a longstanding tradition of fielding top-notch running backs.

So Thorne will run the show, again, but who will be his co-stars come fall? The spring game will help determine that — so keep an eye out for the following players this Saturday.

Payton Thorne

He’s arguably 1 of the top 2 or 3 QBs in the Big Ten and appears to be on a rapid ascent. Could Thorne end up being the top dog in the league this year? Ohio State has CJ Stroud and Michigan has Cade McNamara, but there is room for another star QB in the Big Ten. As a first-year starter, Thorne set the MSU single-season record for most passing TDs (27) and had other stats that prompted mentions of past star QBs such as Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook.

Like all players, Thorne expects to improve this season. While a spring game isn’t the end-all, be-all in regard to progress, Saturday’s scrimmage will certainly serve as a great platform for Thorne to showcase his new stuff.

Spartans offensive coordinator Jay Johnson liked what he saw out of Thorne in 2021 but sees a lot more good things — assuming Thorne continues at his current clip —  coming the QB’s way this season.

“One of the big emphasis for me is to get Payton Thorne to even play at a higher level,” Johnson said this spring, per The Only Colors. “He was really, really good last year. He was very solid. But I still think as he and I have reviewed things and he and I have talked, the growth for him I think is really there. I think for us to take that next step, I need to see that growth from him.

“It’s really just blending everything together. We’re going to still have to run the ball well, you’re going to have throw the ball well. We need to be better in situation ball. We were solid in the red zone, but we need to increase our touchdown production there, and we need to do better on 3rd down — particularly on some of the shorter distances, (that) needs to get corrected and fixed. So that will be kind of the focus as we move forward.”

Jayden Reed

MSU’s superstar return man and receiver will definitely be a focal point of Saturday’s scrimmage in East Lansing. A former high school teammate of Thorne’s at Naperville Central (Illinois), Reed will likely be the Spartans’ top offensive skill player this fall while continuing to develop a longstanding chemistry with his quarterback.

Together, they’ll be the catalyst of the offense.

Reed, who had 59 catches for 1,026 yards and 10 TDs in 2021, could have gone to the NFL but opted to stick around for another go with the Spartans in 2022. Typically, starters are limited during the spring games — and everyone knows what he’s capable of doing — but paying attention to Reed on Saturday is probably still a good idea.

Tre Mosley — who had 35 catches for 530 yards and 3 TDs — was also a productive receiver in 2021, so he’s also worth checking out on Saturday.

Who’s the top RB?

Kenneth Walker III’s departure to the NFL leaves a gaping hole in the Spartans’ backfield; however, there are a couple of obvious candidates to help shoulder the weight this fall: Elijah Collins and Jordon Simmons. In 2021, Collins played in 5 games, rushing the ball 18 times for 102 yards. Simmons, MSU’s second-leading rusher, had 70 carries for 278 yards. Neither scored a rushing touchdown, though — and the Spartans are going to need production on the ground in order to compete for a Big Ten championship.

It’s not every day that a team has to replace 1,636 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Nobody is expecting to see another Walker-like RB, but the Spartans — who have traditionally had solid ball carriers — should expect more out of Collins and Simmons this fall.

And don’t write off Davion Primm. Though only a redshirt freshman, he’s earned high praise from coach Mel Tucker this spring. Evidently, he’s on “alert,” or he’s done some sort of alerting … or, well … Just put it this way: Tucker likes Primm.

Jeff Pietrowski

Michigan State needs a dominant Edge, and Pietrowski could end up being such a player, starting this season. He’s played in 20 games, starting just 3, but he’s quickly become an often-mentioned name around East Lansing. At 6-1 and 235 pounds, he’s not exactly prototypical size for an Edge. But he doubles as a linebacker, too — so he’s versatile. Either way, he could end up producing TFL and sacks for the Spartans this fall.

Entire secondary

Michigan State’s secondary was a tragic comedy in 2021. It was hard to watch and hard not to laugh. At one time in 2021, when it came to opponents’ passing yardage, the Spartans were dead-last in all of college football. Safety Cal Haladay, Georgia transfer Ameer Speed (great name for a DB, right?) and Darius Snow, along with depth players, will be under a microscope Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

Granted, judging off a spring game isn’t always the best way to measure progress, but it’s all that’s available at the moment. If the secondary gets lit up, be prepared for plenty of “can MSU’s secondary rebound in 2022?” articles on your social timelines.