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Michigan State Football 2021 Positional Preview: Offensive Line

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The offensive line unit for MSU has been recently plagued by a lack of health, depth and versatility, but there are reasons to be optimistic. How much can the line improve in 2021?

Maryland v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

For every Javon Ringer, Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford, there’s a band of bouncers up front to make them look pretty. Offensive line is certainly not the primary position group most would associate with the Michigan State football, but then again, who would want to be the program known for that (sorry, Iowa and Wisconsin)?

Michigan State carried an impressive streak of rushing attacks throughout the Mark Dantonio tenure in a conference where physicality is necessary. During the Spartans memorable playoff run in 2015, the offensive line was loaded, led by All-American Jack Allen and eventual top-10 pick Jack Conklin.

More recently, injuries and inconsistencies plagued the position, which has contributed to MSU being one of the worst rushing teams in the nation each of the last three seasons. A lack of reliable running back options did not help their campaign.

The addition of Mel Tucker also brought in a great mind in offensive line coach and run game coordinator, Chris Kapilovic. Much has been made about his potential impact in taking this team’s run game to the next level, but time will tell.

Kailovic brings 30 years of coaching experience and helped produce multiple NFL Draft picks during stops in Southern Mississippi (2008-2011), North Carolina (2012-2018) and Colorado (2019). With more time to develop and added talent in the running back room, there should be signs of a big step forward.

The biggest bright spot of this unit seems to be the level of depth compared to last year. The Spartans return a healthy amount of starting experience on the line and lean on their cohesion to make up for a lack of elite talent.

“Well, the big word is ‘competition,’” Kapilovic said during his media remarks back in March. “We definitely have some competition in our room, and that’s something that’s huge for growth and success, and that’s something that I didn’t feel like we had that across the board in the fall.”

Current players also seem to be warming up quickly to the new coaching addition. Matt Allen was one of multiple lineman who chose to return to MSU, and sited the revamped program and staff being a big reason to come back.

“They (the coaches) want to be the best of the best, and I wanted to be a part of that.” Allen said earlier in the offseason. “So that’s really one of the bigger reasons I came back, and because of my trust in Coach Kapilovic and Coach Tucker.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Pinstripe Bowl - Michigan State v Wake Forest Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This year’s unit has more depth, versatility and above all, time to grow with each other, as opposed to last. Production levels should certainly be higher, but the question is, by how much?

2021 outlook

Returners:

Seniors: AJ Arcuri (sixth-year), Matt Allen (sixth-year), Luke Campbell (sixth-year), Matt Carrick (fifth-year), Blake Bueter (fifth-year), Kevin Jarvis (fifth-year)

Juniors: Dan VanOpstall (redshirt), James Ohonba (redshirt), Jacob Isaia (redshirt), Nick Samac (junior), J.D. Duplain (junior),

Sophomores: Spencer Brown (redshirt)

Redshirt Freshman: Dallas Fincher

True freshmen: Ethan Boyd, Geno VanDeMark and Kevin Wigenton

Transfer addition: Jarrett Horst (redshirt junior, Arkansas State), Brandon Baldwin (Independence Community College, expected to have three or four years of eligibility)

Departures: Jordan Reid, Devontae Dobbs, Justin Stevens, Damon Kaylor, Mustafa Khaleefah and Jack Henrichs

It’s difficult at this stage in the summer to pinpoint exact positions for each lineman, as injuries and production could shift them into different roles. However, it is clear that the interior of line will be the unit’s strength and competition at the guard/center positions will surely boost overall production.

In the middle, Matt Allen and Luke Campbell are both well-experienced players who chose to pick up sixth-year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19. Campbell missed all of last season due to a knee injury, but was one of the most productive lineman on the roster prior, starting 26 of his 31 career games. Campbell also has great versatility, as he has played and started at every position on the offensive line except for center. Allen started the opener last season at center before missing the rest of the year due to injury.

Nick Samac took over at center and played very well in 2020, which may shift Allen to guard and would add some versatility to the middle line. The competition at center between Samac and Allen is one to watch during fall camp.

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

Blake Bueter and J.D. Duplain will add competition to the inside of the line, too. It will be interesting to see what Kapilovic will do with Kevin Jarvis, who was forced to fill in at right tackle last season but fits more naturally as a guard. As a versatile lineman, Jarvis has 27 starts under his belt and will likely find his way to a starting role in 2021 with Kapilovic’s “five best guys” approach. Matt Carrick also has experience at guard, starting 10 games in two seasons, but the possibility of Jarvis moving inside will be another component to watch out for.

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Also returning for a sixth-year is tackle, AJ Arcuri, who was the most consistent blocker on the outside last season. Arcuri started every game last season at tackle and proved he can be a reliable player. He played in every snap in six of MSU’s seven games in 2020, and played 492 snaps out of 498 total offensive snaps for the team.

Lining up at the other tackle spot will likely be Arkansas State transfer, Jarret Horst, who was highly productive at Arkansas State and looks to boost his NFL Draft profile as a Spartan. The addition of Horst may be flying under the radar, considering the importance of the tackle position in a conference stacked with quality edge rushers. The Spartans were sacked 16 times in seven games last year (2.29/game), which isn’t terrible, but Horst should help give the quarterbacks some more time to operate.

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Other names to look out for heading into fall include James Ohonba and Spencer Brown, who are both talented, but lack the experience of some others already mentioned. We will see how quickly some of the true freshmen adapt to the Big Ten, but there’s already been praise from Kapilovic about early enrollee, Ethan Boyd, who is rated the fourth-best offensive tackle in the state of Michigan by 247Sports. Geno VanDermark was rated as the No. 30 interior offensive lineman, and No. 435 overall prospect, in the country by 247Sports. The Spartans also add Kevin Wigenton, while Brandon Baldwin transfers over from Independence Community College (Kansas), for the 2021 class.

The departures of Jordan Reid (left the program after opting out in 2020) and Devonte Dobbs (transfer portal) sting a bit, but considering the amount of experience returning to this line it would be hard not to expect a considerable improvement as a whole.

We shouldn’t underplay the importance of what reliability behind the line would mean either. It’s harder to pick up on tendencies when there’s no emergence of reliable options at quarterback and running back, but unfortunately that has been the case for MSU the past few seasons.

Wake Forrest transfer, Kenneth Walker, steps onto campus as the most complete back on the roster and should give this line a sense of reliability that has been absent. Amid the well-known competition at quarterback with Payton Thorne and Anthony Russo, there’s a sense that either option will be more productive than last year. Either way, the offensive line must play better football in 2021 if Michigan State plans to be competitive.