The accelerated transition to the Mel Tucker era at Michigan State was a unique challenge that clearly warranted a one-year pass. Going into year two, expectations will be a bit higher.
Tucker was handed the keys in mid-February, right before COVID-19 radically challenged the way coaches were allowed to operate and recruit; a less than ideal time for him to construct a full staff and dissect a roster. Players and new coaches had to somehow familiarize each other during months of little football activity and lingering uncertainty of a full season cancellation.
Aside from uncontrollable obstacles, the roster that Tucker and newly hired offensive coordinator, Jay Johnson, inherited was far from electric. In 2018 and 2019, the Spartans ranked 126th and 105th in scoring, respectively.
Struggles on both sides of the ball were evident in 2020. Offensively, the mix of quarterback inconsistencies, absence of a workhorse running back and erratic offensive line play caused the unit to never catch its stride. The Spartans would finish last in the Big Ten in yards per game and scoring.
For the glass half-fullers, this means there’s nowhere to go but up.
Spring football begins next week, and going into the 2021 season, Michigan State will look extremely different with a real possibility of nine new starters on the offensive unit. The staff’s recent activity in the transfer portal is encouraging, yet necessary. So far, the Spartans have lost 16 players and gained 12, including two preferred walk-ons.
Sorting through the chaos that was last season, there are still firm reasons to believe the team will be better in 2021, especially on offense.
Time for staff and players to adapt
The offseason is, of course, an opportunity for players to grow in all aspects of their game. With halted team-building programs during the spring and summer, they had limited chances to see reps and build on-field chemistry in 2020. For an inexperienced roster, the pandemic exposed some glaring disconnects on both sides of the ball.
The challenge for the staff was about equal. Michigan State gave Tucker all the tools to build a quality coaching tree, nearly doubling the salary pool for assistants that he had at Colorado. For Jay Johnson and his newly assembled offensive staff, the job of matching players with specific schemes, plus getting an idea of a depth chart was tough early on.
No, the pandemic was not the sole reason MSU ranked 117th in the nation in scoring offense last year, but it’s tough not to wonder how things could have been different with a normal offseason and minimal distractions.
Last season’s results gives the staff a perspective of where they’re at and what they need to do to maximize the system. So even with the advent of many new faces, expect much more stability.
Players coming back
It is probably unrealistic to believe MSU will have the reloadable offensive talent to match the Alabamas of the world. However, there is talent left on this team that showed glimpses of production in the seven-game slate last year.
Let’s start at what looks to be the strongest returning position group: wide receiver. The Spartans return their most productive receivers from last season in Jayden Reed and Jalen “Speedy” Nailor, who each have big-play ability. Ricky White will get free drinks for a lifetime in East Lansing after his performance against the Michigan Wolverines last season, but will need to take a step in becoming a more consistent target. Tre Mosley proved to be a solid blocker and will get a chance to escalate his role as well.
The offensive line improved steadily throughout the season and will have more depth going into 2021. AJ Acuri solidified his spot as left tackle in 2020, and assuming he returns for his extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, it could allow touted Arkansas State transfer Jarret Horst to move to the right tackle spot and kick Kevin Jarvis inside to guard. At center, Matt Allen chose to return for another season, but may start the year behind junior Nick Samac, who played well down the stretch in 2020.
Michigan State’s rushing attack did not live up to normal standards last year, to put it lightly. Fortunately, the running backs room will return its three leading rushers from 2020, and added key transfers in Wake Forest’s Kenneth Walker and Auburn’s Harold Joiner that will elevate the overall competition. Jordon Simmons and Connor Heyward split time last season and will each be looking to separate themselves. Elijah Collins took a step back after a solid 2019 campaign, but will look to get back into the mix.
At quarterback, MSU lost its most experienced (and best named) player at the position in Rocky Lombardi, which will give way for some of the higher upside guys a chance to compete. Payton Thorne is suddenly the most seasoned quarterback returning from last season with only 85 career pass attempts, but played well in spurts last year. He will have an opportunity to start out of the gate. Also keep an eye on Theo Day and Noah Kim, both of whom were solid recruits coming in.
Transfers coming in
This is where things get interesting.
As is with all transfer athletes, they will have something to prove to themselves, their new team and the programs they left. The production from this transfer group on offense may hold heavy weight toward the overall outlook of the season. The expectation is that 2021 transfers should have immediate eligibility, but that remains to be seen.
Senior quarterback from Temple, Anthony Russo, is the big name and will have by far the most experience out of the quarterback group. Russo, who put up good stats at Temple, has a huge arm and showed the willingness to take chances downfield. He’ll use this opportunity to show NFL scouts he can compete at a power five-level.
Based on experience alone, Russo has the highest floor and seems like the logical choice to start the season opener. We know the correlation of quarterback play to the success of a team and regardless of the direction Tucker chooses to go, MSU will be much stronger at the position. Strength at receiver and improvements at running back will only help.
Previously mentioned Jarred Horst will have an impact at the tackle position and should start immediately. Horst was third-team All-Sun Belt Conference in 2019 and was on the Outland Trophy Watch List in 2020. The addition of an extra tackle will give the Spartans a desirable safety valve on the outside and gives the staff options to move pieces around that they didn’t have last year.
As noted above, the Spartans picked up two solid additions at running back that will provide a much-needed boost to a position group starving for reliability. Harold Joiner III from Auburn logged just 12 attempts and 92 yards for the Tigers in 2019. However, Joiner was a top-200 recruit in the 247Sports Composite Rankings coming out of high school and has some familiarity with the Spartans program having been recruited by Mark Dantonio. Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker III will enter campus coming off a very solid Junior season, with 579 total yards yards and 13 touchdowns. The Spartans are somewhat familiar with Walker, as well, after holding him to just 24 yards in the team’s 2019 Pinstripe Bowl win against the Demon Deacons.
Historically for Michigan State, a reliable running game is a main ingredient for success. Tucker believes in competition and will be counting on at least one of the many backs to find some separation.