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Projecting Michigan State’s opening week starters and depth chart versus Northwestern

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We have reached Week One of the College football season and many programs have released a depth chart for their squads. Unfortunately, Michigan State is one of the programs which has not given us a formal pecking order, and we are left guessing the starters for the football season opener against Northwestern tonight. As Mel Tucker is not sharing the Spartans’ depth chart versus the Wildcats, I will give you my predictions for the Michigan State two-deep this game.


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Starter: Anthony Russo (graduate senior)

Backup: Payton Thorne (redshirt sophomore)

It has been reported that a decision has been made as to who the starting quarterback will be, but this information is not going to be made public prior to the opener. There is little good reason for Tucker to tip his hand, and he won’t, so Northwestern will have to digest more film and prepare for either Russo or Thorne.

Based on last season’s offensive schemes and the type of quarterbacks MSU has shown interest in recruiting, I believe the staff will go with the Russo as he possesses more arm strength and can push the ball down the field. Russo is also the most experienced quarterback with almost 900 career passing attempts over 27 career games at Temple University. He is a bit turnover prone and his accuracy has not always been a point of strength, but the staff targeted him early in the transfer portal and received a commitment from him prior to the 2020 college football season even ending.

With that said, Thorne has already played games within the system and has a longer relationship with his wide receivers – particularly Jayden Reed, his high school teammate. Thorne finished the season as the starter, and from what little we could glean from the spring game, looked to be the first-team quarterback.

There is a real possibility we will see both quarterbacks, particularly if the game is not in question one way or the other. If either Noah Kim or Hamp Fay see the field things have gone exceedingly good or terribly bad.

Running Back

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Starter: Kenneth Walker III (junior)

Backup: Elijah Collins (redshirt junior)

Hype has surrounded Walker since his transfer from Wake Forest. Walker possesses quickness and power, and an ability to find the end zone — something Michigan State running backs failed to do last season. I would be surprised if he was not the starter and did not receive the majority of the carries.

There have been some positive reports about Elijah Collins returning to his 2019 form when he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards. Collins looks to be in his best shape and is eager to put 2020 behind him.

Tucker has stated publicly that the Spartans have four or five running backs who can contribute now. Odds are good Harold Joiner III will see some action at running back and H-back versus the Wildcats. Offensive Coordinator Jay Johnson used some two back-sets at Colorado, with Joiner’s size at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds he pairs best in such a formation. Jordon Simmons should also see some work, as he gives a change of pace with perhaps the most quickness among the four.

Wide receivers

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Starters: Jayden Reed (redshirt junior), Jalen Nailor (redshirt junior – team captain this week), Tre Mosley (redshirt sophomore)

Backups: Montorie Foster (sophomore), Terry Lockett (sophomore), Ian Stewart 9redshirt freshman), Keon Coleman (freshman), Christian Fitzpatrick (redshirt freshman)

Reed and Nailor both finished in the top-20 in the Big Ten in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Mosley had a quiet 2020 season in large part due to an injury, however when on the field, he has proven to be contributor.

The reserve wide receiver rotation is rather murky, I would assume Foster and Lockett will be the replacements for Reed and Nailor. Foster and Lockett are similar as they both were in the 2020 class, each had at least one Division I offer for basketball, and they saw time sparingly last season. It makes sense a big-bodied wide receiver would be rotated in behind Mosley, with Ian Stewart, Christian Fitzpatrick and Keon Coleman all seeking the opportunity. I’ll throw a dart and say Stewart gets the first opportunity. Under normal circumstances, Ricky White would have been mentioned in the depth chart, however, he has announced he will not play this week due to personal reasons.

Tight end

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Starter: Tyler Hunt (redshirt senior)

Backup: Trenton Gillison (redshirt junior)

Hunt continues his improbable career as a walk-on punter turned tight end and holds a slight edge as the starter. Gillison is a former four-star recruit who has yet to realize the production many expected. Expect both guys to see playing time. Connor Heyward was recently converted to tight end, odds are he will appear as a tight end and H-back for his catching and blocking abilities.

Maliq Carr had off-season surgery on his foot, I wouldn’t expect him or true freshman Kameron Allen to see much of any time in game action this week.

Left tackle

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Starter: Jarrett Horst (senior)

Backup: Dan VanOpstall (redshirt junior)

Horst was prioritized by the staff in the transfer portal, so he’s a lock at one of the tackle positions. If Horst was replaced, AJ Arcuri would be first in line for snaps. This may be a bit of a surprise, but if for some reason the staff didn’t want to switch Arcuri from right tackle look for Dan VanOpstall to be the guy off the bench.

Left guard

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Starter: J.D. Duplain (junior)

Backup: Blake Bueter (redshirt senior)

Duplain has had 10 starts over the past two years, he is cemented in as the starter at left guard.

In 2018, 2019, and 2020, Bueter has started multiple games. That said, he has battled injuries and the former walk-on is in close competition with other players such as James Ohonba.


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Starter: Matt Allen (graduate senior)

Backup: Nick Samac (junior)

For a third consecutive season, Allen and Samac will be the top two options at center. Allen was invited back for his sixth year at Michigan State, and it is probable he will get the first opportunity to start. Both Allen and Samac have at least 10 starts at center, so though there isn’t clarity as to who the starter is, MSU will be playing an experienced guy in the middle of the line.

Right guard

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Starter: Kevin Jarvis (redshirt senior)

Backup: Matt Carrick (redshirt senior)

Jarvis was a highly regarded high school prospect as a guard and initially played there to begin his career. Jarvis was the starter at right tackle last season, but he will slide back down to his natural position. Carrick has 18 starts at right guard and will see time in substitution there and, perhaps left guard as well.

Right tackle

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Starter: AJ Arcuri (graduate senior)

Backup: Luke Campbell (graduate senior)

AJ Arcuri is going to flip edges, moving from the starting left tackle to right tackle. In the event Arcuri needs to be replaced (he has endured numerous injuries at MSU, so this is a real possibility), I will go with a mild surprise, but the familiar face of Luke Campbell as the first off the bench. However, it is more probable Jarvis would be pushed to the edge as the right tackle, as he was tasked previously.

Defensive tackles

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Starters: Jalen Hunt (redshirt sophomore) and Dashaun Mallory (redshirt junior)

Backup: Jacob Slade (redshirt junior, potentially out for the game), Simeon Barrow (redshirt freshman), Maverick Hansen (redshirt sophomore)

Jalen Hunt is an explosive interior player who we have seen a few flashes from. There is excitement he may be MSU’s next defensive tackle who wreaks havoc.

A number of before and after photographs were released in the offseason showing the physical changes in players following the new workout and diet regime implemented throughout the team. No player had a more dramatic change in physique than Dashaun Mallory, discernibly leaner and more powerful. Mallory will likely step in as the starter next to Hunt, as Jacob Slade is currently dealing with a hand injury. I will list Slade as a backup, but he could start or not play as all — we have no definitive information on his status and Mel Tucker likes it that way.

Simeon Barrow is an intriguing player who caught a fair amount of attention during the spring game. He has yet to appear in a game and is new blood to keep track of going forward. Maverick Hansen is a big body similar in stature to Slade. If Slade is unavailable, I would expect Hansen to be a part of the rotation.

Defensive ends

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Starters: Drew Beesley (graduate senior – team captain this week) and Jacub Panasiuk (redshirt senior)

Backup: Drew Jordan (graduate senior), Michael Fletcher (redshirt sophomore), Jack Camper (redshirt senior), Itayvion “Tank” Brown (redshirt freshman)

The defensive end position has maybe the best blend of experience, production, and talent for any position group. Beesley, Panasiuk, Jordan and Camper have all played in at least 25 games and have all started multiple games. Beesley was honorable mention All-Big Ten last season and was voted a team captain for the season opener. Panasiuk has battled a number of injuries, and then was affected by COVID-19 last season, hopefully he can finish strong in his final year of eligibility. The Spartans brought in nearly 20 transfers, one of the more accomplished players being Drew Jordan. He was a starter at Duke and provides a level or reliability at the edge.

There hasn’t been much discussion of Jack Camper with the influx of talent at defensive end. The upperclassman provides good size and competent play in spot opportunity. Michael Fletcher presents the mix of size and athleticism coaches yearn for, and he saw increased minutes as the season went on last year. It is a crowded position, so a breakthrough season may be asking too much. Itayvion “Tank” Brown is an exciting prospect who transferred from Minnesota. Originally listed as a linebacker, his frame and athleticism, along with Michigan State’s need for quarterback pressure, has put him in the mix as an edge rusher.


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Starters: Quavaris Crouch (junior.), Noah Harvey (redshirt junior)

Backups: Chase Kline (redshirt junior), Ben VanSumeren (redshirt junior), Cal Haladay (redshirt freshman)

As a base defense, MSU only uses two linebackers, but even so there is a fair amount of uncertainty as to the level of play for this group.

One of the highest regarded transfers, Quavaris Crouch, will likely be a starter as he was at Tennessee. He is a raw player, still learning the subtleties of the position. Returning at linebacker for the Spartan defense is Noah Harvery. He is a bruiser and stabilizing force in the position grouping.

As a recruit, Chase Kline was well regarded, yet his career has been somewhat quiet due to a shoulder issue, some positional movement between linebacker and edge rusher, along with the system change brought in by defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. But Kline did play 226 snaps last season, and reorded a career-high 29 tackles. Yet another transfer, and from the most unlikely of places (Michigan), Ben VanSumeren offers capability and some knowledge from his playing time with the Wolverines. The last guy in the rotation is Cal Haladay, he presents a different skill set than Kline and VanSumeren, as a smaller and quicker attacker. I would not expect the highest rated recruit for the incoming class, Ma’a Gaoteote, to see much, if any, snaps on defense this week.


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Starters: Ronald Williams (senior), Kalon Gervin (redshirt junior)

Backups: Chester Kimbrough (junior.), Marqui Lowery (redshirt freshman), Khary Crump (redshirt freshman), Charles Brantley (freshman)

The cornerback position has a lot of new faces and I think we will see most of those faces make an appearance.

Williams is a big cornerback who has arrived in East Lansing after a stint at Alabama and before that in the junior college ranks. Gervin is the lone returning scholarship cornerback, and I believe he holds onto his position to start the season. The Cass Tech prospect was a starter last year, he experienced some ups and downs, but appeared to progress as he grasped an understanding of the system and his duties. Closely behind Gervin is Kimbrough, a transfer from Florida, who did not transfer with the expectation to be sitting on the sidelines. Kimbrough, like Williams, has impressed throughout fall camp.

After that trio, there are several young players who MSU is going to place in at spots and see who rises to the top. Lowery and Crump were transfers from other Power Five conference programs who have not been under the lights in game competition. Brantley is a wiry, thin for even a defensive back, but received a fair amount of hype coming in and has impressed his coaches throughout camp.


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Starter: Michael Dowell (redshirt junior)

Backup: Darius Snow (sophomore.)

It’s hard to remember the last time a Dowell wasn’t playing for Michigan State’s defense, as Michael’s brothers, Andrew and David, were important pieces to elite defenses. It’s Dowell’s job to lose. He has been moved from safety to nickel to fit Hazelton’s 4-2-5 scheme, which allows him to use his larger frame in run support. His backup appears to be Spartan legacy Darius Snow, who has similar tweener attributes of part linebacker, part defensive back. Snow played sparingly last year, so in the event he cannot handle the duties right away, they will likely slide Kimbrough or Angelo Grose into the spot.


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Starters: Xavier Henderson sSenior – team captain this week) and Angelo Grose (sophomore)

Backups: Kendell Brooks (junior), Tate Hallock (redshirt sophomore)

Henderson is a lock at one of the safety spots (likely strong safety), as this will be his third season as a starter. Grose played nickelback primarily last season, however the staff likes how he makes plays on the ball and wanted to place him in a position which best suits his capabilities, so he moves to free safety.

I will list Division II transfer Kendell Brooks and another MSU legacy, Tate Hallock, as the reserves, but I think it is commonly understood Dowell and Snow would be the first to fill in for Henderson or Grose when there is a need.

Special teams

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Starter: Matt Coghlin (graduate senior)

Backup: Stephen Rusnak (freshman) OR Evan Johnson (redshirt junior)

It is year six for Coghlin, and he has been steady and very productive for Michigan State, with a 75 percent hit rate for field goals, and he has never missed an extra point. Coghlin showed a bit more leg in long distance field goals and in his kick off duties last year.

Behind Coghlin are absolute unknowns following the graduation of Cole Hahn and transfer of Jack Olsen. I do not know who would be the next in line between Rusnak and Johnson, and it is probably in the team’s best interest if that question is not answered.


Starter: Bryce Baringer (redshirt senior)

Backup: Cody Waddell (graduate transfer)

Bryce Baringer recently announced on Twitter that he is now on scholarship, and it is something nice to see. Baringer shows ample leg, but periodically hits line drives to returners. The punt defense unit for the Spartans was one of the worst in the nation by the numbers last year, and was one of only a handful to give up two punt returns for touchdowns. It would be quite beneficial if Baringer could find some more consistency in his punting.

Waddell is another player who changed schools. He arrived in East Lansing from Lubbock, Texas, where he was previously a backup for the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

Punt/Kick returner

Starter: Jayden Reed (redshirt junior)

Backup: Jalen Nailor (redshirt junior), Angelo Grose (Sophomore), Justin White (redshirt sophomore, cornerback)

Reed was the primary kick returner last season, and shared punt return with Nailor. Reed had some explosive moments as a returner for Western Michigan, however I question giving Reed, Nailor and Grose extra hazardous duties when an injury to any of them could create significant problems. It may be wise to give Justin White a chance to see what he can do, as he was an electric returner at the Division II level in 2019, with an astounding 38.1 yard return average on kickoffs.

Long snapper

Starter: Hank Pepper (freshman)

Backup: Michael Donovan (freshman)

Pepper (no relation to former MSU long snapper Taybor Pepper) was the top-ranked long snapper in the nation and is a bit of an oddit,y as he is a legitimate Division I prospect as a linebacker as well.

Michael Donovan is a freshman walk-on who is the backup long snapper. Reserve tight end Parks Gissinger has previously served as the backup long snapper, and would be in the mix if the moment was too big for the youngsters.