Michigan State football: Way-too-early predictions for Spartans' offense in 2022
Without running back Kenneth Walker III and wide receiver Jailen Nailor, Michigan State will be missing two of its top offensive performers in 2022. In 2021, Walker was arguably the best running back in the country and Nailor was among the most exciting playmakers in all of college football.
Two big-timers, now out of the fold.
What will MSU do to compensate?
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Finishing 11-2 in 2021, capped by a Peach Bowl win over Pitt, the Spartans are expected to compete with the heavies in the Big Ten. But how will they equal their offensive output from this past fall? Or will they even get close?
Here are some way-too-early predictions for coach Mel Tucker’s squad, which still has MSU single-season passing TD record-holder Payton Thorne calling the shots behind the line of scrimmage — so there is still reason to believe that the Spartans will field a formidable offense this fall.
Thorne won’t come close to 27 TD passes
Despite a record-setting season in 2021, Thorne most likely won’t even approach his 27 passing touchdowns in 2021 — probably closer to 20-22, based on losses, a rotation of younger players on the o-line and the loss of superstar Jalen Nailor, who accounted for 6 of the 27 passing touchdowns.
Sure, Jayden Reed is back; he caught 10 passes for touchdowns in 2021. But a quick skim through returning players and returning statistics suggests that the air TD production just might not be there this fall.
Jalen Berger will get cooking in EL
Fresh off a transfer from Wisconsin, Jalen Berger emerged in the spring as the Spartans’ top ball-carrying option — to nobody’s surprise, of course. While with the Badgers, Berger showed some flashes in very limited action. However, the potential for much, much more is certainly there for the third-year player who’s appeared in 7 college contests.
As a true frosh in 2020, the pandemic-shortened season, Berger rushed 60 times for 301 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“We’ve had a little separation … where guys are starting to take off because they’re starting to slow things down and understand,” said Spartans RB coach Effrem Reed back in spring practice, per Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press. “I think the last scrimmage, Jalen Berger took a huge step forward because he actually got out there, he got loose, he made plays, he made people miss. He finished on top — that’s what we talk about all the time, fall forward and finish on top. And I thought he did a good job out of the backfield catching the football as well.”
Based on past MSU running backs, the success the Spartans had running the ball under Tucker and previous coach Mark Dantonio, it’s safe to predict that Berger could be the next star RB in East Lansing. Filling the shoes of Walker will be difficult, if not impossible, but Berger is certainly capable of running up the stats to the tune of 800-900 yards and 8-10 rushing touchdowns.
And really, the touchdown prediction might be a little conservative, depending on how the Spartans decide to score this fall. If they heavily rely upon Berger, that total could be closer to 12-15 touchdowns.
O-line will enter with major struggles
Michigan State’s offensive line will have some new faces, in terms of starters, but those faces have been around for a few years. That might help ease the pain, but it’s entirely likely the group will struggle through the first few weeks of the season. Offensive line is all about chemistry, and that takes time to develop. Sure, there will be guys who know the system, but it’s not the same as having tried-and-true gameday starters returning to the lineup.
Right now, MSU’s OL looks like this: RT: Spencer Brown; RG: Matt Carrick; C: Nick Samac; LG: JD Duplain and LT: Jarrett Horst.
Brown is a new one to watch. He’s a redshirt junior and knows the lay of the land but he’s only had 1 start: the Peach Bowl vs. Pitt.
“I feel like that was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Brown said in spring, per Matt Wenzel of MLive. “I feel like me not playing early and taking a couple Ls and sitting back helped me out because I found the bigger picture. I learned through a lot of struggles and adversity and if I never had that, I wouldn’t even know where I would be, I wouldn’t appreciate a lot of things. It helped me really open up my eyes. I feel like Coach (Mel Tucker) reinvented me and made me locked in to where good isn’t good enough and that’s what I appreciate out of Coach Tuck.”
Essentially, MSU will roll out a group of veteran backups — and there isn’t much depth behind them, obviously.