Every season, over 30 non-scholarship players, know as “walk-ons,” join the team for the Michigan State Spartans. The majority of these players either do not participate in any games or do not play any meaningful snaps. However, on occasion walk-ons provide contributions, and in rare instances they become indispensable members to the team.
In recent years, MSU has been fortunate to have a handful of walk-ons become prominent players, such a Blair White, Kyle Elsworth, Drew Beesley and, most notably, Kenny Willekes. Willekes was selected first-team All-Big Ten (twice), Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and the 2019 Burlsworth Trophy as the most outstanding former walk-on in college football.
Here are some of the walk-ons who may or are likely to contribute for Michigan State in 2021:
Jacob LaFave, defensive tackle – After redshirting in 2019, Jacob LaFave played in all seven games in 2020, all on punt coverage. Though his action was limited to 46 plays, he was one of only 37 players last year to appear in every game. I thought LaFave may test the waters and enter his name in the transfer portal to find a program as a scholarship player. Due to the COVID pandemic exemption, LaFave has four seasons of eligibility remaining. At 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, with essentially the same amount of eligibility as recruits from the class of 2021, along with two full years in MSU’s program (LaFave was the rare early enrollee walk-ons), I would assume he would attract some attention at the MAC level. That being said, playing for MSU was a childhood dream, as his father, Jeff, played for the Spartans in the early 1990s. At this time, I would not expect to see him getting reps at defensive tackle, but the staff has confidence in him and he will likely be a contributor on special teams.
Justin White, cornerback/kick returner – Due to NCAA transfer rules, Justin White sat out the 2020 season after playing at Division II Colorado Mesa in 2019. White was named the Rocky Mountatin Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Year after leading Division II in kick return average with a robust 38.1 yards per return average. White was remarkably productive in special teams with four blocked kicks and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. White also made plays as a cornerback, with three interceptions and 34 tackles in his freshman season. A two-sport athlete, he participated in the long jump and 60-meter dash as well. If you watched the Michigan State spring game, you probably saw White – however, his presence on the field coincided with a long touchdown pass to Jayden Reed and a deep leaping reception made by Ian Stewart. Based on the glimpse we saw at cornerback, I seriously doubt — at a diminutive 5-foot-8 — he will log any time with the defense. Despite that I do believe he could have a significant impact for MSU as a kick and/or punt returner. It is a bit of a gamble to use starting wide receivers Reed orJalen Nailor as a returner with the possibility of injury always looming based on the hazards of the duties. There is obviously a considerable gap in talent level between Division I and Division II football, but White’s statistics in his one season as a freshman makes him rather intriguing.
Evan Johnson/Stephen Rusnak, kickers – With the graduation of Cole Hahn, who had a year of eligibility remaining, and the surprising transfer of Jack Olsen to Northwestern, MSU went from three scholarship kickers to one. Thankfully, Matt Coghlin returns for his for his sixth season in East Lansing. In the event Coghlin is injured or struggles mightily, Evan Johnson or Stephen Rusnak will be called upon to handle place kicking and kickoffs. Johnson previously played at Hope College and went six for seven in field goal attempts, but missed five of his 47 extra point attempts. It should also be noted these stats are from the 2018 season, as Johnson has been a student at Michigan State since the fall of 2019. Stephen Rusnak originally committed to play at FCS South Dakota, but the Clarkston native decided instead to attend MSU. In the shortened 2020 high school season, Rusnak made three field goals, though he should have a strong leg with all but one of his 30 kickoffs resulting in a touchback.
Tyler Hunt, tight end – To the best of my knowledge, Tyler Hunt remains a non-scholarship player, and if so, I hope that changes as soon as possible. In 2018, after Jake Hartbarger broke his leg during the Arizona State game, Hunt showed up out of nowhere as the back-up punter, and for five games provided a respectable 40-yard average on punts until he himself sustained a season ending ACL injury, Hunt endured at least five surgeries to repair damaged ligaments and to address infection. When he returned in 2019, Hunt picked up holder duties for field goals and extra points and saw action on kickoff return, with a 16-yard return vs Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl. Following intense workouts, which resulted in Hunt bulking up to 235 pounds, he requested a move to tight end last season. Once again Hunt proved to be a competent player for the Spartans, as he was second among tight ends in receptions, and he finished the year as the co-leader in rushing touchdowns (with one, sadly) after scoring on a short-side jet sweep play. This offseason, Michigan State has added true freshman Kameron Allen, former four-star recruit Maliq Carr via transfer from Purdue and preferred walk-on Powers Warren via transfer from Mississippi State to try and bolster what has been a lackluster tight end position. For the moment it appears Hunt is still in front of the new faces and is in direct competition with Trenton Gillison to be the starter versus Northwestern.
Bryce Baringer/Cody Waddell, punters – Bryce Baringer has had an unusual college career. Initially he committed to Southern Illinois in 2017, then proceeded to enrolled at Illinois where he redshirted. Baringer transferred to Michigan State in 2018, but didn’t join the team until Hartbarger broke his leg versus ASU. In total Baringer appeared in four games and struggled with a 32.4 yard average over 15 punts. In 2019, Baringer wasn’t a member of the football team. This past season in 2020, he rejoined the football team and won the punting job. Though his punt average was a respectable 43.6 yards, MSU unraveled in coverage and conceded some of the worst punt return numbers in the country. Some of this was due in part to the hang time, or lack thereof, of Baringer’s punt. Hopefully this season Baringer can squeeze some more hang time out of his kicks and we se a significant improvement in punt coverage. If Baringer’s punts lead to long returns, or worse yet, touchdowns again, then MSU will call upon Texas Tech transfer Cody Waddell. This is the second time Waddell has switched schools, originally, he played at Division II Lincoln University and was responsible for punting and placekicking for two seasons. Oddly enough, over three seasons, Waddell never attempted a punt at Texas Tech. Waddell has a rather thin résumé, but the coaching staff seemed deliberate in their process of adding a punter.
Update: Baringer has received a scholarship.
Dan VanOpstall, offensive tackle – At 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds, VanOpstall possesses the requisite size to play offensive tackle for the Spartans. Last year he appeared in six of the seven games on special teams, appearing for 34 plays. Though Michigan State added transfers Jarrett Horst and Brandon Baldwin, along with freshman Ethan Boyd, the tackle position remains thin and vulnerable. During the summer practices, VanOpstall has been noticeably present in the two-deep receiving repetitions as a backup tackle for Horst and AJ Arcuri. In the event either of those two are injured, MSU may decide to leave Kevin Jarvis at offensive guard and give VanOpstall an opportunity to see what he can do in game action.
Walk-ons are an essential subgroup of players to a team’s success, whether it be for practice purposes, special teams or plays from scrimmage. Though it is not in the team’s best interests to rely on too many walk-on contributions, we will almost certainly see some of these players on the field in important moments.