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Michigan State Football 2021 Positional Preview: Wide Receivers

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The Spartans return a deep receiving group, including their top-three pass catchers from 2020.

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NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The positions previews for Michigan State roll on, as we finish up the offensive skill positions by taking a look at the wide receivers.

The receivers are a group that Michigan State developed well under Mark Dantonio, even in the lean years, and that is a trend that hopefully will continue under Mel Tucker and company.

This should be one of the stronger groups on offense for the Spartans this year, as MSU returns its top three receivers in terms of both yards and receptions. The Spartans also have some younger, talented players looking to make an impact.

Let’s take a look at the receiving corps for 2021.

Returning Projected Starters/Contributors

Jayden Reed, redshirt junior

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The transfer from Western Michigan led the Spartans in receptions last year with 33, and was second on the team with 407 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. He also ran the ball six times for 17 yards, both the most for any receiver, and returned kicks and punts.

Reed will be a redshirt junior this year and is looking to really break out in a big way. He was named to the Pro Football Focus preseason All-Big Ten third-team as a returner, and was also recently added to the Paul Hornung Award watch list. Reed flashed some signs of being a top level threat last year, but was just not consistent enough. Drops and fumbles plagued him at times, and that cut into his production.

After experiencing a full year of Big Ten level football, Reed should know what he is in for now and be ready this season. Actually getting to work with his quarterbacks before the season should also help out with the consistency.

Reed and potential starting quarterback Payton Thorne went to high school together in Naperville, Illinois and the history and chemistry showed on the field last year. Reed might be the go-to receiver no matter who is under center this year, but if it is Thorne instead of Anthony Russo, I expect the two of them to sync up for a big year.


Jalen Nailor, redshirt junior

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“Speedy” Nailor led the Spartans in receiving yards with 515 last year, and also scored a team high four touchdowns. He was named third-team All-Big Ten by Phil Steele.

The redshirt junior is the old man of the group so to speak, as this will be his fourth season seeing action at MSU. For his career, Nailor has 49 catches for 759 yards and six touchdowns. He also has 16 carries for 166 yards and an additional score.

Nailor is the Spartans’ best deep threat, and will help stretch the field for whoever is at quarterback. He can also work in space and use his speed to turn short passes into big gains.

The key with Nailor is for him to stay healthy. Last year, in a shortened season due to COVID-19, was the first year he played in more than six games, so we really haven’t seen what kind of numbers he can put up over a full 12-game regular season. If he can stay healthy this year, paired with Reed, he should be able to put up an impressive body of work.

Speed kills in football, and Nailor and Reed have plenty of it for opposing defenses to try to deal with.


Ricky White, redshirt freshman

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The star of last year’s Michigan game, White figures to be in the mix to land the third starting receiving spot.

A redshirt freshman from Georgia, White burst on the scene with eight catches for 196 yards and a touchdown in Michigan State’s win over Michigan. However, he had only two other catches for 27 yards the rest of the year, and missed the final three games due to injury.

White isn’t a big receiver, at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, but he showed the speed to make big plays in the Michigan game, constantly finding himself behind the secondary and picking up big chunks of yards on nearly every play.

There were offseason rumors regarding White either leaving the program or being dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons, but those turned out to be untrue as White is on MSU’s fall camp roster and ready to make an impact. Adding White back in adds another potential big play threat for the Spartans, something that Reed and Nailor also possess. While the three of them are not a particularly large trio, they are all speed threats and players that can make things happen in space.


Tre Mosley, redshirt sophomore

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Mosley, hailing from Pontiac, Michigan and West Bloomfield high school, has appeared in 10 career games for the Spartans, snagging 28 catches for 287 yards and a touchdown. Last year he had seven catches for 71 yards after appearing in just four games due to injury. He did start against Penn State and Ohio State, so he is certainly someone that could be in the mix for a starting role.

Mosley is a bit bigger than the previous three receivers mentioned, listed at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. He was ranked as the No. 1 wide out in the state of Michigan by various recruiting services coming out of high school, so he certainly has the pedigree to be a starter, and a good one at that.

I would not be surprised to see Mosley jump up and snag a starting role, or at least be heavily in the rotation. He is also someone that could see more action in the red zone due to his size advantage over the other receivers.


Other Returning Players Who Could Make an Impact

CJ Hayes

Hayes, a fifth-year senior, missed all of 2020 due to an injury. He earned Academic All-Big Ten honors for the third consecutive year in 2020, and also earned his bachelor’s degree in communication this past December.

Hayes has appeared in 17 career games with two starts. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound wide receiver has recorded 14 career catches for 154 yards. If he returns to the Spartans healthy in 2021, he could make an impact if given the opportunity.

Terry Lockett Jr.

A 6-foot, 180-pound sophomore out of Minneapolis, Lockett appeared in six games last year as a true freshman. He grabbed one catch for four yards against Iowa, so there isn’t a ton to go on from 2020,

Lockett was the top receiving prospect in the state of Minnesota coming out of high school, so like Mosley, he certainly was a player who came into East Lansing with a lot of talent and potential.

He could look to step up in 2021. Expect Lockett to get more work in the rotation, especially in some four wide receiver sets.

Montorie Foster

Foster is another 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore who saw action last year.

The Ohio native appeared in all seven games, including a start against Northwestern. However, he did not log a catch in 58 offensive snaps. He did have two tackles on special teams, though.

Foster was one of the top receivers in Ohio coming out of high school, but was a late-riser up the recruiting ranks. Like Mosley and Lockett, he should mix into the receiving rotation throughout the year.

The good thing about having Hayes as a graduate student and all of these sophomores for depth is that they all have some experience now, and should have no problem stepping into a larger role in the case of an injury. They will also continue to understand the offense and improve so that when it is time for them to step in, they are ready to go.

Newcomers

Christian Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick is a redshirt freshman who transferred from Louisville after last year. The Southfield, Michigan native appeared in the Cardinals’ season finale against Wake Forest for his only action of the season.

A consensus top-25 player in the state coming out of high school, Fitzpatrick adds something to the wide receiving group that none of the players above really have…height.

Fitzpatrick checks in at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, which literally gives him a leg up on some of the other receivers when it comes to playing time. If nothing else, he can provide a big red zone target.

Fitzpatrick comes from a football family as well. His brother, Dez, had a great college career at Louisville and was a fourth-round pick by the Tennessee Titans in the 2021 NFL Draft. Definitely some upside here.

Keon Coleman

If you are looking for a true freshman to contribute this year, my money is on Coleman. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Louisiana native was rated as a four-star recruit and the No. 42 receiving prospect in the country by 247Sports’ individual rankings.

A three-sport athlete in high school, Coleman was first-team All-State in football, second-team All-State in basketball, and was also a track standout. He plans to walk-on to the basketball team for Tom Izzo and the Spartans.

Coleman also possess the size that can make him a difference-maker, and is clearly a fantastic all-around athlete. He is going to have a big career at Michigan State before his time is done.

Others on the roster:

  • Ian Stewart, redshirt freshman
  • Sebastian Brown, redshirt freshman
  • Joseph Martinez, redshirt freshman
  • Cade McDonald, redshirt sophomore
  • Aubrey Dawkins, redshirt freshman
  • Nick Hunter, redshirt sophomore
  • Jahz Watts, redshirt senior

Could anybody from this group step up? We’ll see.

Breakdown

This is a pretty deep group. Reed and Nailor are proven commodities that have shown themselves to be big play threats. They can work down the field, or create in space. White has shown the potential to take over a game on the big stage, and certainly looks like he can be a major contributor in his second year with the program.

The depth of the sophomores will only add to the strength of this group and push the starters to be that much better. And the newcomers in Fitzpatrick and Coleman add an element of size that is otherwise lacking from the established players.

I expect big things from this group, mostly because I expect the quarterback play to be much better than it has been with either Thorne or Russo at the helm. It will be fun to see how the offensive coaching staff and play-callers decide to deploy these weapons that they have throughout the season.