Jay Johnson, the second-year offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach of the Michigan State Spartans, met with members of the media via Zoom on Tuesday afternoon to give an update on the Spartans’ offense as we near the mid-point of the spring practice season.
Coach Johnson began by commenting on the importance of having an actual spring football season in 2021, which is something that did not happen with the first-year staff in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We really kind of started back over,” Johnson said about having spring ball this time around.
A key for Coach Johnson is simply getting everyone on the same page, from the language and communication point of view. It is clear that the situation the staff found themselves in last year at this time made establishing this common frame of reference difficult. “Once we can communicate, we can execute better,” Johnson said.
He later added, “It is a good challenge to get 11 dudes all going in the same direction...There is a lot of gelling that has to happen. That takes time...A focal point of our system is that it is process driven. That process takes a while.
“You got to all be rolling the same way. And (if) there is one guy that isn’t, that can be detrimental. If that one guy would have been right, it might have been a 15-yard gain, but if he’s wrong, it might be minus-two (yards), and there you’re sitting at second-and-12.”
It is not just the players who need to get on the same page, but the coaching staff has also benefited from the time spent together this year.
“That all got blown out of whack when we first got here with the timing of everything,” Johnson said. “It’s been really good for us as a staff to really get into the depth of everything that we have been doing. and that’s going to pay dividends.”
Can the run game get better?
It is no secret that the Michigan State offense struggled in 2020. A big part of that struggle was the rushing attack, which finished in the bottom-10 of the FBS last year in averaging only 91.4 yards per game. When asked about what when wrong and how that unit can improve, Coach Johnson had a lot so say.
For Coach Johnson, the essence is execution “and that comes with time and with practice, and with preparation.” Johnson also spoke about a comprehensive level of understanding that was needed not just for the running backs, but for the quarterback and the offensive line.
“Once you do that, then hopefully you can do things better fundamentally. and once we are not thinking about it, your physical talents can take over...and if you can do that, then you give yourself a chance.”
As for the running back position specifically, Coach Johnson mentioned how the addition of some new players to the team through the transfer portal (such as former Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker III, while former Auburn running back Harold Joiner III will join the team in the summer) have made the competition in the position group much stronger.
“At this point I would definitely say that it is running back by committee,” Johnson said. “They have all shown positive signs, which I think is good.”
Johnson then emphasized that the current level of play would only serve to raise the bar for every athlete at that position, which was the goal in bringing in players from the transfer portal. “We will be better for it in the future.”
Inside the Quarterback Room
With the decision of would-be senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi to transfer following the 2020 season, the addition of Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo, and the promising play of now redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne late last season, the quarterback room has a different cast of characters compared to last year at this time.
Coach Johnson was first asked about Russo. He said that Russo was a competitor and that he had been impressed with the work that he had put in weight room. But, Johnson seemed to be the most impressed with his work ethic
“Just like any good football player, particularly at the quarterback spot, you have to work at it,” Johnson said. “(Russo) has been showing that he is willing to do that. He is really putting in a lot of time to try to learn the new language and all of the things that go with it, and so far he has done a very nice job.”
When asked about Russo’s on-field performance, and especially his high interception numbers at Temple, Johnson had the following to say:
“When you get a pretty talented quarterback with good arm talent, sometimes guys think that they can make every throw...you sometimes will things to happen.”
Coach Johnson mentioned that the coaching staff is working with all of the Michigan State quarterbacks to get them to think in terms of taking what the defense gives them, and he believes that they are making progress in this regard.
As for Thorne, Coach Johnson said this:“Payton does a tremendous job mentally, and he is physically-gifted.”
Coach Johnson then mentioned that while Thorne struggled a bit to learn the new offense last year, he believes that things are starting to slow down a bit for him.
“He does a great job,” Johnson said. “He really knows things inside and out..He’s had a solid spring so far as well.”
Coach Johnson also mentioned that having back the team’s top-four wide receivers in terms of production (Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor, Tre Mosley and Ricky White) from last year is helping the offense from the view point of continuity.
While the starting quarterback job will most likely come down to either Thorne or Russo, Coach Johnson also mentioned that the staff was working closely with the other quarterbacks on the roster, redshirt junior Theo Day, redshirt freshman Noah Kim and true freshman Hamp Fay. The goal for now is to get those players up to speed on the Spartan offense and to better evaluate them to understand their capability.
For comments from Russo, Thorne and head coach Mel Tucker regarding the quarterback competition, please read here.
Johnson, the Michigan State offense, and the rest of the team will continue with spring ball in the month of April, with practices and scrimmages on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays leading up to spring game on Saturday, April 24.