Our final position group preview for the season looks at one of the deeper groups on the team, the wide receivers. This is a group that will return its top three players in terms of production from last year despite losing some depth pieces to transfer. Despite the losses, the Spartans have plenty of players available to step in and fill those roles.
Key Losses: Hunter Rison and Trishton Jackson
Jackson looked like he was going to be one of Lewerke’s favorite targets based on his performance in spring ball and fall camp, but finished the season with just 12 catches for 143 yards. So when he announced he would be transferring, it wasn’t a huge surprise.
When Hunter Rison announced he would be leaving the program, that did come as a bit of a surprise. Rison is an MSU legacy, his father was All-Pro Andre Rison. Hunter had a very solid freshman year, catching 19 passes for 224 yards, including coming up with some big catches for first downs in key spots in several games. Apparently, this wasn’t enough for Hunter, or Andre, or whomever, as he decided to transfer and ended up at Kansas State, the only school in the Big 12 that doesn’t throw the ball 50 times a game.
The departures chip into MSU’s depth at the wide out spot, but shouldn’t really play a big factor this season, and they are losses at a position where Michigan State has had no trouble developing talent.
Returning Starters: Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart, and Cody White
This trio combined for 140 catches, 1,767 yards, and 15 touchdowns last season. Davis, now a senior, led the way with 55 grabs for 776 yards, and nine touchdowns, all of which led the team. He was named second-team All-Big Ten last year. Davis’ 12 catches against Penn State last year tie for the fourth most in a single game by an MSU player.
Darrell Stewart is the main target in the slot for MSU. The Spartan coaching staff was pretty creative in finding ways to get Stewart the ball, and he made the most of it, finishing second on the team in catches and yards. His 10 yards per catch were the least of any player with double digit receptions outside of L.J. Scott. But 26 of his 50 catches went for first downs, so he was often making big plays even if they weren’t for big yardage.
Cody White burst onto the scene in the second half of last season. It started in the Indiana game when he hauled in six passes for 99 yards, and continued the following week at Northwestern when he had nine catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns. White grabbed five passes in each of the next two games, before being shutout due to weather in the Maryland game. He finished the season with a two touchdown performance against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. The 6-3, 210 pound wide out was named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team, setting the school mark for most receiving yards by a true freshman.
Other Returning Players: Laress Nelson, Cam Chambers, C.J. Hayes (RS Freshman)
Chambers and Nelson both saw time on the field last year and combined for eight receptions and 95 yards. Hayes red-shirted and did not play.
Chambers is the guy that will likely benefit the most from the transfers of Rison and Jackson. Now in his third year with the program (red-shirt sophomore status), Chambers has the size (6-2, 214 lbs) to be a factor for the Spartans offense. A former top-50 WR recruit, Chambers is one of the few members left of the heralded recruiting class of 2016. He had a big spring game leading all players with five catches for 50 yards.
Nelson is more of a slot speedster, who saw some time on punt returns last year as well. He has shown some good hands as a receiver, both in game and in practice. If he can show those same hands while fielding punts, that very well may be where he contributes most this year.
Possible Impact Freshman: Jalen Nailor
Nailor could be a player to watch maybe this year, but certainly in the future. Nailor checks in at 6 foot, 187 pounds, so he could probably bulk up a little, but he can run. The number one receiver in the state of Nevada, Nailor also won state titles in the 100 and 200 meters in track, as well as being a member of the state champion 400 and 800 meter relay squads.
Nailor could take the slot speedster position from Nelson, and he could also see action on kick/punt returns. It will be fun to see how the coaching staff tries to utilize his speed and get him the ball in open space.
X-Factor: Cam Chambers
I really believe Chambers is poised to have a break out year. He is a big target and has really worked hard the last few seasons for a chance to contribute this year. The total numbers will probably not be huge, as there are only so many passes to go around, but, like Rison last year, I see Chambers coming up big in key moments to extend drives or get points. Chambers has the body to be a big red zone target as well, an area that Davis dominated last season. I could see Chambers doing the same on the other side of the field.
This group is deep, talented, and already has a full season of growth under its belt with Lewerke. You can only assume that they will be even better this year. There is size, speed, hands, shiftiness, just about anything you could hope for in a receiving corps, this group has. They may not individually be All-Americans, but the sum of their parts has got to be one of the best groups of wide outs in the conference.
I guess the only real concern is that beyond the top three guys, the next group hasn’t had a ton of production. But these guys have been around, and Chambers and Nelson saw the field on offense more than just a little bit last year. I really can’t see any major holes in this group as we head into the season.