No Kenneth Walker III? No bowl bid. Who knew those 2 things would be correlated? In retrospect, how did we not know?

Michigan State will head back to the drawing board for the 2nd time in the Mel Tucker era. After a 2-5 start in 2020, Tucker attacked the transfer portal. A year later, the Spartans finished top 10 in both the AP and Coaches Poll with an 11-2 record capped off by a Peach Bowl win.

After this 5-7 season, where will the Spartans go? Will the transfer portal be as kind with NIL money being a massive influence for other programs strapped for cash? Maybe so. For now, let’s look back at every position and hand out some grades.

Quarterback: C –

Payton Thorne earned the title of QB1 after his 2021 campaign. For 2023, nothing should be promised.

Turnovers remain a concern for Thorne. Last season, he threw 10 interceptions. This season, 11. Bad decisions were made left and right, and never was consistency in his game. When Thorne was hot, he looked the part of a capable starter.

When things went awry, it all began to spiral out of control. Noah Kim might not be the long-term answer, but someone has to compete with Thorne for starting reps this spring if Tucker expects better results.

Running backs: C –

Jarek Broussard and Jalen Berger each followed the Walker approach, leaving one major school to head to another. Neither runner could duplicate the success a season later that eventually lead Walker — now a Seattle Seahawks rookie — to win the Doak Walker Award last December.

Berger ended the season on a somewhat high note, averaging over 5.3 yards per carry in 3 of his last 4 games. Broussard was best used as a change-of-pace back, often coming in on short-yardage situations to pick up 1st downs. Elijah Collins, the veteran of the group, eventually moved into the No. 2 role and looked balanced in both passing sets and on run plays.

As a unit, the Spartans ranked 112th nationally in rushing, with only Iowa and Indiana averaging fewer yards per outing among programs in the B1G.

Receivers/tight ends: B+

Last season, the receiving duo of Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor looked to be the combination needed to enhance Thorne’s prowess as a passer. A year later, Thorne was at his best when finding either Reed or Keon Coleman. And when all else failed, Tre Mosley was a reliable No. 3 weapon.

Coleman took over as the new No. 1 weapon with 58 catches for 798 yards and 7 touchdowns. He became the go-to target in the Spartans’ double-overtime win over Wisconsin, catching a 21-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter to make it 21-14, and another in overtime to take the lead. Reed tallied 55 catches for the 2nd-straight season, but only managed to finish with 636 yards after posting 1,000 last season.

Maliq Carr offered value as a flex option with 16 catches for 209 and 2 TDs. Daniel Barker served as the in-line blocker and also scored a pair of touchdowns. Could it have been better? Sure.

How about worse? Yep. Plenty of teams in the conference would love to have the trio of targets Thorne was granted this past season.

Offensive line: C

For a veteran unit, Michigan State’s front 5 made ample mistakes, especially in terms of run blocking. Countless penalties, multiple missed assignments and a lack of consistency all plagued MSU from ever finding consistency in the trenches.

Thorne was sacked 18 times, 4th-fewest in the conference. But again, it all comes down to run blocking, a staple of Jay Johnson’s offense. The Spartans averaged 3.8 yards per run and scored a mere 16 touchdowns, both ranking bottom-5 among B1G teams. Nick Samac regressed. So did Spencer Brown. As a unit, Michigan State rotated 8 offensive linemen for 4 less-than-stellar formations.

Defensive line: C+

A deep rotation, but little production. Simeon Barrow returned after a stellar freshman campaign and added 4 sacks to his resume. Jacob Slade was limited to 8 games due to a midseason injury and recorded just half a sack.

Jacoby Windmon, who finished with a team-high 5.5 sacks, transitioned to a standing blitzer following his 4-sack outing against Western Michigan. That only lasted 7 games before the senior would be suspended for the remainder of the season following the altercation in the tunnel following the Michigan game.

Michigan State regressed majorly in stopping the run, allowing 178.6 yards per game – 62 more yards per game than in 2021. The Spartans also took a step back in terms of creating pressures and sacks, seeing their sack-average drop from a B1G-best 3.3 per game to 2.4 — still decent, but far from outstanding.

Linebackers: B

Remember Cal Haladay’s breakout freshman season? Yeah, that was the opening act for the real show a season later. After registering 96 tackles in 2021, the sophomore from Elysburg, Pa., recorded 120 stops in 2022. Last season, Halady also 2 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. This season, he only forced 1.

Ben VanSumeren recorded 73 stops and 2 sacks. Aaron Brule worked into the rotation with 30 tackles, and arguably was the Spartans’ best off-ball blitzer with 4 sacks. After Windmon’s suspension, the trio primarily rotated in depending on the formation.

Secondary: D

It’s not the fact that Michigan State allowed an average of 237.9 yards per game through the air. It’s not the fact that losing Angelo Grose due to his suspension hurt the last line of defense. And it’s not the fact that the Spartans were limited at safety due to an early season injury to Xavier Henderson.

It’s these two numbers: 26 and 2. Twenty-six was the number of touchdowns allowed in coverage. Two was the number of interceptions created by the defense. The latter was the lowest in college football this season. Seriously, even programs like UTEP, Vanderbilt and Virginia all had at least 4 turnovers via the pick.

Far too often, Michigan State was snake-bitten by its own mistakes. The lone solstice? Kendall Brooks was 1 of 2 players with 100 tackles. Then again, if your safety is hitting triple-digit tackle markers, that’s not really a win, is it?

Special teams: D

The Spartans had 2 kickers who each missed crucial attempts that potentially would have sent them to bowl season. Ben Patton went 50% on field goal attempts with a long of 48. Jack Stone went 2-of-4 with a long of 50 yards.

Four different players returned kickoffs, with only Reed averaging more than 20 yards per return. Tyrell Henry saw the most action with 10 returns while averaging 18.3 yards per run-out. Both Germie Bernard and Broussard finished with at least 5 returns and averaged over 19 yards an attempt.