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Projecting Michigan State’s starters and depth chart versus Western Kentucky

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Projecting Michigan State’s starters and depth chart versus Western Kentucky

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Week Five for the Michigan State Spartans, and head coach Mel Tucker continues to show his disdain for depth charts by not releasing any during the week. So be it, I will guess once again at the starters and reserves for the game against Western Kentucky (offensive statistics from last week’s performance against Nebraska listed in parentheses next to each starter).

Quarterback

Starter: Payton Thorne (Passing: 14-for-23, 183 yards, one touchdown, one interception)

Backup: Anthony Russo (Did not play)

By his own account, Thorne struggled versus Nebraska. He had an early interception (his first of the year), looked uncomfortable often, and also took a few hard hits. If Michigan State is lucky enough to get up big against Western Kentucky, it wouldn’t be terrible to get Russo some action and protect Thorne as the team heads into games with only conference opponents moving forward.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back

Starter: Kenneth Walker III (19 carries, 61 yards)

Backup: Jordon Simmons (three carries, 13 yards; one reception for six yards)

Walker was bottled up for nearly the entire game, with his best rush coming in overtime when he was tackled just short of the end zone. I would be concerned if he does not have a productive, or at least efficient, day against WKU, which struggles to defend the run.

Simmons didn’t receive many touches against Nebraska but was effective in his limited role. I predict he’ll be more in the action Saturday night.

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Wide receivers

Starters: Jayden Reed (four receptions, 59 yards, one touchdown; one rush for two yards), Jalen Nailor (no receptions, three targets), Tre Mosley (six receptions, 70 yards)

Backups: Terry Lockett, Montorie Foster, Ian Stewart, Christian Fitzpatrick, Keon Coleman

The three-wide receiver, one-H-back alignment has become the base starting offense for the Spartans. I would look for Nailor to be emphasized early after not getting any receptions in last Saturday’s game.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Tight end/H-Back

Starter: Connor Heyward (two receptions for 39 yards)

Backup: Tyler Hunt (no receptions, no targets)

Heyward only have two catches, but one of them was a rumbling reception where he ran through multiple Nebraska defenders. It seems his blocking has evolved, and he is a guy the staff continue to play on most downs.

Hunt was extremely quiet against Nebraska. Michigan State had a season low in offensive plays, and needed more protection, thus limiting his opportunities.

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Left tackle

Starter: Jarrett Horst

Backup: Luke Campbell, Dan VanOpstall

Michigan State has gone with a two-platoon system with their offensive line. For the first three games, the rotation appeared to keep the group fresh and the unit had improved noticeably from last season. Unfortunately, the Cornhuskers dominated the MSU offensive line for much of the game, leaving a lot of questions being asked. I would expect the same two-deep as in the previous games. That said, I think it would be in the Spartans’ favor to find a smaller core of offensive lineman to get a majority of the snaps.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Michigan State at Miami Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Left guard

Starter: J.D. Duplain

Backup: Blake Bueter

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Michigan State at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Center

Starter: Nick Samac

Backup: Matt Allen

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Maryland at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Right guard

Starter: Kevin Jarvis

Backup: Matt Carrick

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Right tackle

Starter: AJ Arcuri

Backup: Luke Campbell, Spencer Brown

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Michigan State at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive tackles

Starters: Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow

Backup: Jalen Hunt, Maverick Hansen, Deshaun Mallory, Kyle King

The hand-clubbed duo of Slade and Barrow have maintained their position on the defensive line. Hansen provides competent snaps in reserve and Jalen Hunt slowly seems to be healing from his foot injury.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Michigan State at Miami Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive ends

Starters: Jacub Panasiuk and Jeff Pietrowski,

Backup: Drew Jordan, Michael Fletcher

Panasiuk had probably his best game of his career, logging two sacks and seven tackles in the overtime win over Nebraska, and earning Pro Football Focus’ Defensive Player of the Week honors. The big news following the last game is the health of Drew Beesley. Head coach Mel Tucker does not provide much of any information on injuries, but the fact Beesley was carted off the field and returned on the sidelines with a protective boot is quite concerning. I would not expect Beesley to return to the field anytime soon. Instead, Pietrowski has shown flashes of disruption. Fletcher has been slowed by health issues, but appears to be rounding into form. The value of getting Jordan in the transfer portal will be on full display with Beesley out for the foreseeable future.

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Linebackers

Starters: Cal Haladay, Quavaris Crouch

Backups: Ben VanSumeren, Noah Harvey, Ma’a Gaoteote

Haladay and Crouch have cemented themselves as the starters and continue to grow in their positions. As to the reserves, the situation has suddenly shifted with the announcement shortly after the game against Nebraska that Michigan State cornerback Kalon Gervin and linebacker Chase Kline had entered the transfer portal. VanSumeren will continue to provide reserve snaps, along with Harvey, the 2020 starter. The top recruit from the 2021 Class, Ma’a Gaoteote, may see some extra snaps as well.

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Cornerbacks

Starters: Ronald Williams, Chester Kimbrough

Backups: Charles Brantley, Marqui Lowery, Khary Crump

Williams and Kimbrough have taken ownership of the primary cornerback responsibilities. Kimbrough made the defensive play of the game against Nebraska by intercepting a pass from Adrian Martinez in overtime, giving the Spartans the opportunity to quickly seal the victory against the Cornhuskers. With the defection of Gervin, Brantley is the clear cut first option off of the bench. Lowery and Crump are the odds on favorites to provide additional support at cornerback.

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Nickelback

Starter: Michael Dowell

Backup: Darius Snow

Nickelback remains stable, as Dowell shall remain the starter with Snow providing solid play as the backup.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Safeties

Starters: Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose

Backups: Darius Snow, Kendell Brooks

As with nickelback, the safety roles have been defined. Henderson had an eye-popping 17 tackles versus Nebraska, and remains one of the top leaders of the team.

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Special teams

Placekicker

Starter: Matt Coghlin

Backup: Stephen Rusnak OR Evan Johnson

Coghlin provided the game-winning field goal versus Nebraska. On the day he made three of four attempts, with one kick being blocked after issues with the snap and hold.

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Punter

Starter: Bryce Baringer

Backup: Cody Waddell

Baringer has amazed with his improvement from last season. Against the Cornhuskers, he had six punts with an average of 58.8 yards. He was a weapon in a low-scoring affair, which included a celebration of the lives of former punters Mike Sadler and Sam Foltz.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Indiana at Michigan State Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Punt/Kick returner

Starter: Jayden Reed/Jalen Nailor

Backup: Jayden Reed/Jalen Nailor

Reed had the play of the game with a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown, the first such return since 2011. With the Spartan offense struggling and trailing late in the fourth quarter he took a poorly placed punt and went untouched for a game-tying score.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Nebraska at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Long snapper

Starter: Hank Pepper

Backup: Michael Donovan

True freshman Hank Pepper continues to be responsible for the long snapping duties.