Michigan State football: Way-too-early look at 2022
Short-lived but incredibly exciting, the Kenneth Walker III era at Michigan State has come to an end. The Wake Forest transfer found his way to East Lansing and put together one of the best seasons by a Spartans running back in program history.
He was a Heisman contender for most of the season. He was the reason why MSU was in the race for a Big Ten title and potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
Oh, and he scored 5 rushing touchdowns — a series record for either team — during a 37-33 win over Michigan. Easily one of the greatest installments of the annual in-state rivalry, it was the first time the teams had met as top-10 powers since the 1960s.
He had only played 3 seasons in college: 2021, 2020 (COVID-19) and 2019 (true freshman), so the 5-10, 210-pound junior could have returned to MSU for at least another season. Instead, the nation’s No. 2 rusher struck while the iron was hot and declared for the 2022 NFL Draft. He’s considered one of the top 4 draft-eligible RBs.
Due to Walker’s absence, the 2021 Peach Bowl offered a glimpse into 2022, a sort of preview for what’s to come without one of the greatest one-hit wonders in college history.
What worked/didn’t work
The rushing game worked well, obviously, with Walker going for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns and finishing as the No. 2-ranked rusher in the country. Michigan State’s offensive lines have been pretty solid over the past few years, and this past season was more of the same — a lot of running backs would have had good seasons behind that line, but Walker pulled off something special this past fall.
Replacing Walker won’t be easy. Probably impossible. But there is hope for the Spartans in the backfield with Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins, who combined for 388 yards on 88 carries, led by Simmons’ 70 carries for 278 yards. Also, Jalen Berger comes in via the portal after falling out of favor at Wisconsin. At one point not long ago, he was expected to be the Badgers’ next great back.
Conversely, the Spartans are losing most of their starting O-line, so making sure the OL and RB units get on the same page will be critical. The game day groups will be new, but they’ve already gotten to know each other through practices; the process shouldn’t be too grueling.
Payton Thorne will still be the QB, and MSU will still have half of its dynamic duo of high-ranking all-purpose-yardage WRs: Jayden Reed will return, but Jalen Nailor has declared for the NFL Draft. Returns, receptions, reverses — Reed and “Speedy” did it all for the Spartans, accounting for 17 touchdowns in 2021 (Reed 11, Nailor 6). Now Reed will be looking for a new partner in speed.
The Spartans rode Thorne throughout the season, rarely needing — or using — backups Noah Kim and Anthony Russo. Everyone knows what Thorne is capable of doing. But what happens if he’s unavailable? When a star is always being a star, there is little time to experiment with anyone else. Having a star who plays the lion’s share of the snaps is a great thing. Every team wants that. So, in exchange, there aren’t going to be a ton of snaps for backups, other than some late-game stuff.
Michigan State has Western Michigan and Akron before playing at Washington. Then, after that, it opens Big Ten play vs. Ohio State in East Lansing. A 2-2 start wouldn’t be ideal for a team looking to make another run at a Big Ten title and possible CFP berth. By the end of October, the Spartans could have up to 5 losses, having hosted Wisconsin along with playing at Michigan and Penn State. It’s not a favorable fast-start type of schedule by any means.
Very much one-dimensional in 2021, the Spartans have to develop a Walker-less running game and refurbish the O-line. Reed will play a huge role.
Senior safety Xavier Henderson may return, but that’s not certain. Otherwise, as far as the secondary is concerned, it’ll have pretty much the same personnel next season — and that group was the worst pass defense in all of college football this past season.
Per 247Sports Composite Rankings, Michigan State has the No. 22-ranked 2022 recruiting class, 5th in the B1G. Katin Houser, a 4-star QB, and Alex VanSumeren, a 4-star LB, top the incoming group of coach Mel Tucker’s recruits. Dillon Tatum, a 4-star ATH out of West Bloomfield (Mich.), was a major in-state score who could end up becoming a do-all like past stars Keshawn Martin and Devin Thomas, or even comparable to Jayden Reed, in terms of athleticism.
It’s too early to make a season prediction, but the Spartans appear to be in position to struggle after one of their greatest seasons on record.