Michigan State football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup
The first year of a rebuild is always a sore sight for eyes, but Year 2 under Mel Tucker should look much different if all things go to plan.
Michigan State has been busy in the transfer portal on both ends, losing over a dozen players but also picking up a few crucial pieces. With the Spartans having been forced to frequently adjust their depth chart due to so many injuries, they have a plethora of players with starting experience, albeit on an offense that ranked dead last in the Big Ten.
Defensively, Michigan State’s starting front six should be better with 4 returning starters, but the loss of Antjuan Simmons at linebacker cannot be highlighted enough. The corner position is a bit of a nightmare, but at least Xavier Henderson and Tre Person offer an experienced security blanket to bolster a passing defense that ranked 9th in the league last year.
Here’s how I have the 2021 Michigan State starting lineup shaking out for Week 1:
QB: Anthony Russo
RB: Jordon Simmons
WR1: Jayden Reed
WR2: Jalen Nailor
WR3: Ricky White
LT: AJ Arcuri
LG: J.D. Duplain
C: Nick Samac
RG: Kevin Jarvis
RT: Jarrett Horst
TE: Matt Dotson
The skinny: Another year, another quarterback question, although this year the options seem a little better. Given his experience at Temple, Russo should beat out Payton Thorne for the job in Week 1 even with Thorne’s strong finish to the season against Penn State.
Michigan State’s running backs in 2020 were a bizarre story, but when healthy, Simmons was the Spartans’ most consistent offensive weapon. He’ll face some competition, however, from Auburn transfer Harold Joiner and Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III, not to mention Connor Heyward and Elijah Collins, who took a decent share of carries in 2020.
The Spartans’ wide receivers showed flashes of being one of the most dangerous groups in the league last year, but were vastly inconsistent. There’s no doubt about Reed and Nailor atop the depth chart, but Tre Mosley’s ability to block may beat out White’s explosive capability.
The offensive line is a bit of a puzzle, but the addition of Jarrett Hurst from Arkansas State was a great pick-up. Horst was a left tackle in 2020, but with Arcuri having cemented his spot there last year, Horst will likely move to the right side, allowing for Jarvis to return to guard. Matt Allen was the team’s starting center for Week 1 last year, but Samac played well enough down the stretch to likely warrant keeping him there ahead of Allen.
DE: Jacub Panasiuk
DT: Jacob Slade
DT: Jalen Hunt
DE: Drew Beesley
LB: Noah Harvey
LB: Chase Kline
Nickel: Michael Dowell
CB: Kalon Gervin
CB: Angelo Grose
S: Xavier Henderson
S: Tre Person
The skinny: Panasiuk and Beesley are returning starters, with Beesley receiving some All-Big Ten love in 2020. Slade returns on the interior, but Hunt will be tasked with replacing Naquan Jones. Assuming 4-star recruit Rayshaun Benny follows through with his promise to sign in February, he likely could factor into a starting role by mid season.
Harvey and Kline are both solid options to start but beyond them is a lot left to be desired in terms of linebacker depth. Ma’a Gaoteote is the Spartans’ top incoming recruit, and like Benny will contribute more as the season rolls along, but Michigan State could still use a transfer to factor in at linebacker, most notably Ma’a’s older brother Palaie.
Michigan State lost 4 corners from 2020 to either the NFL or the transfer portal. Gervin is the only returning starter, leaving the nickel and other corner as open competitions. Grose had a stellar season at nickel in 2020 as a true freshman, but the Spartans will probably move him outside, allowing for a less-experienced player like Dowell to fill the nickel. If Person is indeed the starting safety alongside Henderson, Darius Snow may very well beat out Dowell at the nickel position or beat out Person if Person has more struggles.
Michigan State should be shooting for 6 wins and a bowl berth in 2021. If its offensive line can keep Russo clean, the offense has the weapons to move to the top half of the conference in scoring.
Tucker isn’t finished yet shaping the roster for next season, but depth remains a major question for the defense. If the Spartans fail to find any additional help at corner or linebacker, coverage may be the thing that holds Michigan State back from a .500 record.