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Michigan State Football: A Spring Game Like No Other

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The Spartans wrapped up their spring season with a public practice on Saturday. I got to watch it from the press box. Here is what I saw.

The date was Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. The opponent was Maryland. It was senior day in East Lansing. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was also the final home game for Coach Mark Dantonio. I had to look up the score, but MSU won that game 19-16 in comeback fashion. A pair of fourth quarter field goals from Matt Couglin in the final period gave the Spartans the win.

Little did we know at the time that when we sang MSU Shadows, the players entered the tunnel for the final time, and as we all went back to our cars as the twilight silence fell that evening that fans would not be back in Spartan Stadium again for well over a year. Little did we know how much the world would change in just a few short months.

Now, here in the spring of 2021, the Michigan State University football team and staff also looks quite a bit different. For the first time in almost 17 months, I also got to see them live.

One of the perks on writing for The Only Colors is that we have access to media credentials. That means that I was able to watch the game from the warm and dry confines of the press box area, masked, and socially distanced from the two guys at the State News with whom I shared a row. It was certainly a unique way to experience the game.

What’s It Really Like to Be a Member of the Media?

On Saturday morning, I completed the COVID-19 screening questionnaire on the MSU website and made the drive to East Lansing. Once there, I was able to park in lot 62 just north of the stadium.

The rain and the prohibition against tailgating made for a quiet, short walk to the stadium after I arrived. I only saw a handful of people in the parking lot, most of whom were visiting the make-shift booth that was set up to support the Michigan State swimming and diving program. Other than that, it was pretty much a ghost town, certainly compared to the atmosphere of a normal spring game or football Saturday.

Outside the west side of Spartan Stadium an hour before the start of the spring game

That said, I did get a look at a few Spartan Marching Band members on their way in from Munn Field. Their approach to the field was a bit more casual than the last time I attended a game. The wind instruments also appeared to have “masks” of sorts covering the bells.

Member of the SMB “marching” into Spartan Stadium for the spring game

Then, I proceeded to the media will call area to pick up my credential. After a quick check of my computer bag by security, I stepped up to the check-in desk, they verified my identity and that I had cleared the COVID screening, and I was given the credential and lanyard.

Before heading taking the elevator to the eighth floor, I made sure to pay my respects to the original terra cotta Spartan statue, located in the west side of the stadium right next to the media will call. It is always good to see the original Sparty.

Sparty. Still lookin’ good.

Once I arrived at the media level of the eighth floor, the restrooms and concession stand were pointed out, and then I was directed to my seat. On this particular day I was assigned a chair at a long narrow bench on the south side of stadium.

I was fortunate enough to be assigned the first row, right at the glass. I was positioned roughly on the 15-yard line, high above the upper deck. I brought a pair of binoculars just in case, and I found that I needed them often.

Not a bad place to watch a game...especially when it’s raining

At my seat was simple a hardcopy of the roster and instructions on how to connect to the Wi-Fi. As for the schedule of the practice, we were just referred to the official MSU football Twitter account, which was not a lot to go on, but which did give an outline of the activities.

The periods were clearly shown on the scoreboard as the practice proceeded. The clock was running to show how much time remained in each period, but no points were shown for the offensive or defense. We did not get to see the live Big Ten Network feed and the public address announcements were honestly hard to hear.

While the players were warming up and as I settled in, I got a feel for how the university was handling the small crowd, the cheerleaders, and the band. As for the Spartan Marching Band, they were seated in their normal area, but they were socially distanced such that they were taking up the entire section.

The Spartan Marching Band in the era of social distancing

As for the cheerleading team, from what I could tell, they were located in the two accessibility/wheelchair platforms located in the student section and in north end zone above the tunnel where there was a lot of space to spread out. I saw later that a masked Sparty was also in the house, but I did not personally see him.

Social-distanced MSU Cheerleaders

I will give a major shout-out to the cheerleading team. During the latter scrimmage portion of the practice, the squad was able to successful start “the wave” with the few thousand Spartans fans that braved the weather and the pandemic to attend the game. That was probably the loudest cheer of the afternoon.

About the actual football...

Of course, the purpose of attending the spring practice game was to get a chance to see what the latest version of Spartan Football actually looks like after winter conditioning and a full set of spring practices for the first time in head coach Mel Tucker’s tenure.

As the schedule suggested, the early part of the practice mostly involved individual position unit drills. Those that watched the Big Ten Network coverage of the game likely got a flavor of what was happening, but it did not capture the entire scope of the event.

From the press box it was clear that there was a lot going on, all at once, and it was all happening very quickly and with precision. The different position groups were spread out all over the field and there was a flurry of activity everywhere. On some level, it was chaos, but it looked to be highly controlled chaos, ad more like a finely-tuned machine. It was impressive.

As the practice went on, MSU moved to more team-oriented drills. At times, there were full team 11-on-11 drills, and at other times there were seven-on-seven drills. In most cases, it appeared that the No. 1 offense would go against the No. 2 defense. For parts of the practice they used an extremely fast tempo. The Spartans also practiced third-down plays and other situational drills.

At the end of the practice, the entire team ran a series of sprints near the north end zone. It is my understanding that one of Mel Tucker’s mentors, former Michigan State head coach Nick Saban (you may have heard of him), used to do something similar.

With all of the action happening so quickly, it was hard to see everything that was happening. That said, here are some of my main observations about the different position groups and what Michigan State fans might be able to expect come the fall.

Quarterbacks:

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne and graduate transfer Anthony Russo both took a roughly equal number of reps with the first-string offense. That said, Thorne seemed to be the first quarterback to take snaps in those situations. It appears that Thorne right now is QB-1A, while Russo is QB-1B.

Thorne has more mobility and more experience with the Jay Johnson offense, but Russo has more experience at the position at the division one level overall, and just arrived to East Lansing in January. He is also a self-proclaimed “film-room junkie” who just might make a serious leap over Thorne this summer.

Both quarterbacks made some nice throws throughout the afternoon, include=ing a deep shot to junior wide receiver Jayden Reed by each quarterback. Thorne did throw an interception to nickelback Michael Dowell during the third-down drill late in the scrimmage, but this was the only major error from either player. I would expect this competition to go well into the fall.

As for the other quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Noah Kim was the clear No. 3. Kim also made several good throws, including a jump-ball completion to Ian Stewart early in the scrimmage and a nifty touch pass again to Stewart later. His future with the Spartans looks bright.

Michigan State Spring Game
Ian Stewart wins the jump ball on a pass from Noah Kim
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The other two scholarship quarterbacks, junior Theo Day and true freshman Hamp Fay only took a handful of snaps each and neither made a strong impression. But, the mere fact that the younger Noah Kim has clearly passed Theo Day was certainly a factor is Day announcing his entry into the transfer portal on Wednesday.

Wide Receivers:

As noted in the television broadcast, the Spartans top four pass-catchers from 2020 all return in 2021: junior Jayden Reed (33 catches for 407 yards), junior Jalen Nailor (25 catches for 515 yards), redshirt freshman Ricky White (10 catches for 223 yards), and redshirt sophomore Tre Mosley (seven catches for 71 yards).

Only Reed and Nailor were available for the scrimmage, which allowed several of the younger players on the roster to get some valuable on-field reps. Within that group, Ian Stewart and Cade McDonald both made some nice grabs.

Reed looked outstanding and is clearly the No. 1 wideout on the team, as expected. Nailor, however, did not make a strong impression. I only recall a single dropped pass from him all afternoon.

Michigan State Spring Game
Reed and Nailor led the Spartan receiving corp in 2020. Will they again in 2021?
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Tight Ends:

It seems like it has been a long time since the Spartans trotted out an impact tight end, and I am not convinced that there is one on the roster this year either. Several tight ends caught passes through the afternoon, but none of them really stood out.

Redshirt senior (and former walk-on punter) Tyler Hunt likely was the best of the bunch, but redshirt juniors Trenton Gillison and Parks Gissinger also caught my eye as pass catchers. True freshman Kameron Allen also made a couple of plays. But, can any of these guys block? That will go a long ways towards determining the effectiveness of the position this fall.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Will Kameron Allen make an impact at tight end this year?
Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Running Backs:

It is no secret that the Spartans struggled to run the ball in 2020 and Mel Tucker dipped into the portal immediately in the offseason to try to shore up this part of the offense. Wake Forest transfer and redshirt sophomore Kenneth Walker III is already on campus and participated in the scrimmage, while Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III will join the team this summer.

Walker and Joiner join redshirt senior Connor Heyward, redshirt junior Elijah Collins, sophomore Jordon Simmons, and redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin in the crowded running backs room.

There were no real explosive plays from the backs during the scrimmage, but there were enough carries to at least get an impression of each back. To my eye, Walker looks like the real deal. He looked fast and elusive, and I would be mildly surprised if he does not earn the start at Northwestern in Week One.

Elijah Collins also looked at lot more like the player that we saw in 2019. He revealed recently that last fall he was struggling to get back into shape after contracting COVID-19 over the summer, which explains his lack of production in 2020.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Elijah Collins looks to regain the form that allowed him to lead MSU in rushing in 2019
Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Although I don’t think that it made the BTN broadcast, Donovan Eaglin had at least one or two nice runs during the scrimmage. His runs prompted more that one media member to blurt out “who is number 32?”

Both Heyward and Simmons also got work throughout the afternoon, but neither player made a strong impression.

Offensive Line:

Several offensive linemen, including several with starting experience, did not participate in the scrimmage. So, it was tough to get a strong read on the group in general.

It was notable that redshirt junior guard James Ohonba and redshirt junior and Arkansas State transfer tackle Jarratt Horst both repped with the No. 1 offense. It was also notable that graduate student Matt Allen continues to battle junior Nick Samac for the No. 1 center duties. This battle will likely also continue into the fall.

Defensive Line:

When defensive ends Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk both announced that they would be returning to East Lansing for one more year in a Spartan uniform, the defensive line immediately became the top candidate for the strongest position group on the team. The d-line is both deep and talented, and that was on display at the spring game practice.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Just call him “Coach Beesley”
Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Both the No. 1 and No. 2 defensive line mostly stymied the MSU run game all afternoon. Furthermore, there were several instances where the Spartan quarterback was forced to scramble or was “sacked” by being touched by a defender.

Similar to the offensive line, it was difficult to single out individual players, but redshirt freshman defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, who opted out last year due to concerns over COVID, was in the backfield most of the afternoon. He has the look of a future star in the trenches.

Linebackers:

The Scottie Hazelton defensive prefers to utilize a smaller, quicker linebacker in the slot area and is therefore more of a 4-2-5 concept. As a result, MSU now only puts two conventional linebackers on the field along with a nickelback in the slot area. Due to graduation, the NFL Draft, and the transfer portal, MSU is currently very thin on linebackers.

Furthermore, presumed starter Chase Kline did not participate in the scrimmage, which left redshirt senior Noah Harvey and redshirt freshman Cal Haladay repping with the No. 1 defense. That said, Haladay caught my eye on several plays and seems ready to contribute now.

Help is also on the way, as three transfers (including Tennessee transfer Quavaris Crouch), and two true freshman will be joining the team this summer.

As for the the slot cornerback/safety, most of those reps went to redshirt junior Michael Dowell and sophomore Darius Snow, both of whom looked solid all afternoon.

Secondary:

While depth is a concern at the linebacker position, the situation is as bad or worse in the secondary. Safety appears to be in better shape than cornerback with senior Xavier Henderson and sophomore Angelo Grose (we will see if Grose stays at safety or moves back to cornerback this fall) repping with the first-string in the middle of the field.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Senior Xavier Henderson looks to captain the Spartan secondary and defense in 2021
Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Both players appeared to play a very clean scrimmage and the middle of the field appears to be in good hands. On the edge, however, there are concerns.

The No. 1 defense featured redshirt junior Kalon Gervin and converted safety and graduate student Emmanuel Flowers. Gervin appeared to also have a solid scrimmage, but Flowers was in the area for a few catches.

As mentioned above, the Spartan quarterbacks and receivers, especially Jayden Reed, had several explosive plays through the air. But, it most cases, these catches came against second-string cornerbacks such as Justin White, who was a transfer following the 2019 season from Division II Colorado Mesa University. White got picked on several times.

Much like the linebacker position, help is on the way in the defensive backfield, and therefore we will not know what this position group will really look like until the fall. The secondary will add four true freshman and three additional players from the transfer portal this summer. I expect a lot more competition for the starting jobs this fall.

That about does for today. Until next time, Go Green.