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Storylines to watch during Michigan State’s 2022 spring game

What to pay attention to during MSU’s spring game on Saturday, April 16.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Michigan State football spring game takes place this weekend on Saturday, April 16 at 2 p.m. Attendance is free, and for those who can’t make it to East Lansing, the event will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.

Due to injuries across the board, the spring game won’t exactly be a “live scrimmage,” but there will be some “live periods.”

The format on Saturday is a “15-period practice featuring individual and group drills during the first half and live scrimmage periods during the second half,” according to Michigan State athletics. This will be similar to what MSU fans saw during the 2021 spring game.

With that said, there are still a lot of interesting storylines and developments to watch out for this weekend as the team concludes spring ball and works toward fall camp in August.

In no particular order, here are a few things that Michigan State fans may want to keep a close eye on during the spring game:

Offensive line depth/availability

As mentioned, the biggest reason why the spring game format is more or less a glorified open practice is because of injuries across Michigan State’s roster. This is especially true along the offensive line. At different points throughout the spring, MSU has had as little as seven bodies fully participating in practice.

“One half of my brain is like feeling sorry for these guys that they’re out here and there’s nobody else here,” MSU assistant head coach/offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Kapilovic said earlier this spring. “But the other side of me is like, ‘I can’t waste this opportunity.’ If I just baby them and we accept mediocrity then that’s what we’re going to get, so we can’t do that.

“Coach (Mel Tucker) has done a great job of putting us in a situation where we’ve been able to limit the reps to where the expectation is when they do, they should be full speed and full throttle. In turn, I gotta coach them like there’s 20 (guys) out there. I don’t care if there’s five out there or seven, we have to get better every day. So we have to approach it that way...whoever’s out there got to get it done.”

By the start of the regular season in the fall, from left to right, Michigan State’s offensive line is projected to look like this: left tackle Jarrett Horst, left guard J.D. Duplain, center Nick Samac, right guard Matt Carrick and right tackle Spencer Brown. Which of those players will actually be active for the spring game remains a mystery. Certainly Carrick will not be participating as he continues to recover from a significant leg injury he suffered during the 2021 season.

Of course, starters are far from set in stone this far out before the season. In the summer, a group of freshmen will arrive, as will Washington State transfer Brian Greene, who is expected to compete for a starting role on the interior offensive line. At the very least, MSU will enter fall camp with much more depth than it has now.

The one positive to the lack of availability that Kapilovic has mentioned is that a lot of younger guys have been able to get first-team reps during the spring. These players include Brandon Baldwin (redshirt sophomore), Ethan Boyd (redshirt freshman), Geno VanDerMark (redshirt freshman), Kevin Wigenton (redshirt freshman), Dallas Fincher (redshirt sophomore) and others.

Keep an eye on which offensive linemen look ready to contribute meaningful snaps heading into the 2022 campaign.

Running back rotation

Michigan State loses Doak Walker Award winner and Walter Camp Player of the Year Kenneth Walker III to the NFL Draft. More than likely, nobody on the current roster is going to have the kind of impact that Walker had on an individual basis. However, MSU possesses a strong stable of backs with a lot of potential.

It is a crowded room, so paying attention to who is getting the most reps during the spring game is important, but just like with the offensive line, what MSU shows during the spring game isn’t necessarily what to expect come fall. In fact, running backs coach Effrem Reed expects the team to rotate two or three tailbacks per game during the regular season.

Wisconsin transfer running back Jalen Berger has been getting more comfortable as the spring progressed and should be in line for a decent amount of carries this coming season. Additionally, the Spartans return experienced halfbacks in Elijah Collins, Jordon Simmons, and Harold Joiner III, as well as younger guys like Donovan Eaglin and Davion Primm looking to make an impact.

Primm, now a redshirt freshman, has continued to impress the staff throughout spring, and although he is yet to record a carry in a college game, he very well may work himself into the rotation this season. Primm was also the first ever recruit to commit to Mel Tucker at Michigan State, so the staff has been high on him for a long time, and Tucker recently said there’s a “player alert” to watch out for Primm.

Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard is not with the team during the spring, but will join the program in the summer.

Backup quarterback competition

The Spartans are set at the starting quarterback position, as now redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne will look to build off his impressive 2021 season in which he led Michigan State to an 11-2 record and a New Year’s Six bowl victory over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl. Thorne also set the Michigan State program record for single-season touchdown passes (27).

But who will Thorne’s immediate backup be? If Thorne is forced to miss time, who is the best option on the current roster to fill in? MSU has a young and talented stable of scholarship quarterbacks with Noah Kim (redshirt sophomore), Hamp Fay (redshirt freshman) and Katin Houser (true freshman early-enrollee), but none of those players have taken a college snap.

Offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Jay Johnson and head coach Mel Tucker have praised the young signal-callers throughout the spring, but know there is a lot of things for them to still improve upon moving forward.

The backup quarterback job is still up for grabs, and likely will be heading into fall camp, according to Tucker, but it will still be interetsing to see who from the group impresses during the spring game.

“I think it’s probably going to go into camp with those guys,” Mel Tucker said of the backup quarterback competition. “They’re getting better, all of them. They’re all very talented guys. It’s just going to be a matter of who’s gonna step up the most and be the most consistent at the position.

“But I like the guys that we have there and they’re going to continue to get better because they really work, they’re serious guys, they have very good attention to detail and they’re very competitive. And then Coach (Jay) Johnson, he coaches them relentlessly.”

Defensive end/edge rusher rotation

Michigan State is losing a lot of production at the defensive end position with Jacub Panasiuk, Drew Beesley and Drew Jordan all exhausting their eligibility, while a couple other players have transferred out of the program. There are a lot of question marks at the defensive end position — who is starting and who is rotating in?

There are many talented options, and maybe the spring game will give us a glimpse of which pass rushers are standing out under newly-hired defensive line coach Marco Coleman and pass-rush specialist Brandon Jordan.

Jeff Pietrowski, who played 483 defensive snaps last season and appeared in all 13 games, will look to take on a full-time starter role. Earlier this spring, Coleman called Pietrowski a “favorite,” and the experience Pietrowski gained last year should pay dividends for his development moving forward. Florida transfer Khris Bogle could also be in line for a starting spot, or at least significant playing time, and the spring game will give MSU fans their first look at how Bogle is fitting in with the program.

Another player to watch is converted running back Brandon Wright, who played 34 defensive snaps in 2021, and recorded 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said earlier this week that Wright is “flashing” during spring practice.

Other guys to look out for include Michael Fletcher, Itayvion “Tank” Brown, Avery Dunn and true freshman early-enrollee Chase “Simba” Carter. With that said, Hazelton mentioned that Dunn and Brown are both “nicked up,” so their status for the spring game is uncertain.

It will also be interesting to see if any of the linebackers work at defensive end or as a standup edge rusher, similar to Brown’s role last season. It wouldn’t be shocking to see UNLV transfer Jacoby Windmon and/or Mississippi State transfer Aaron Brule getting some reps there.

True freshmen/transfers

We’ve already mentioned some true freshman early-enrollees such as Houser at quarterback and Carter at defensive end, but including those two, Michigan State had a total of nine true freshman who arrived in January and are participating in spring practice (if all are healthy). Joining Houser and Carter in that early enrollee group are cornerback Caleb Coley, safety Jaden Mangham, tight end Jack Nickel, defensive back Dillon Tatum, defensive tackle Alex VanSumeren, cornerback Ade Willie and wide receiver Germie Bernard.

The spring game will offer Michigan State fans their fast chance at seeing what the freshmen bring to the table and who looks ready to contribute right away. More freshmen will join in the summer and the players who are there now will certainly improve by the time fall camp rolls around, but the spring game will be an excellent opportunity for the current freshmen to step up.

Additionally, Michigan State had several transfer additions in January. We’ve mentioned Berger (running back), Bogle (defensive end), Brule (linebacker) and Windmon (linebacker), but don’t forget about Georgia transfer cornerback Ameer Speed, who should make an impact in the secondary right away. More transfers are coming in the summer, including the aforementioned Greene and Broussard, as well as Illinois transfer tight end Daniel Barker, and potentially one more scholarship transfer addition.

Like the freshmen, for the transfers who are currently on the roster, the spring game is their chance to step up and show how they’re fitting in with their new team.

Returning starters and contributors

While Michigan State is losing several key players from the 2021 team — Walker, Jalen Nailor, Matt Allen, AJ Arcuri, Panasiuk, Beesley and more — the Spartans also return a ton of production, experience and potential on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, in addition to the players we’ve already mentioned above, most notably, Thorne, the team also returns wide receivers Jayden Reed, Tre Mosley, Keon Coleman, Montorie Foster and others, as well as tight ends Tyler Hunt and Maliq Carr. All of these players saw playing time to varying degrees last season. Thorne and Reed are the obvious leaders of the group, but watching which of these players look to be even more improved an in line for a big 2022 season is of intrigue.

Defensively, several key players return as well, including Pietrowski; defensive tackles Jacob Slade, Simeon Barrow, Maverick Hansen, Dashaun Mallory and Jalen Hunt; linebackers Cal Haladay and Quavaris Crouch; cornerbacks Ronald Williams, Chester Kimbrough, Charles Brantley and Marqui Lowery; safeties Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose (who we may also see play nickel); safety/nickelback/linebacker Darius Snow and others.

Not all of these players mentioned will be active on Saturday. In fact, Crouch has been “out,” this spring, according to Hazelton.

Although the spring game likely won’t tell too much in this regard, MSU fans would like to see improved passing defense in the secondary.

Another thing to watch out for is if any players are being moved around to different positions. For example, Snow, who played safety and nickelback last season, has been learning the linebacker spots throughout the spring. Somewhat surprisingly, Hazelton said that may be the best spot for Snow in an already crowded linebackers room. It will be interesting to see how exactly Snow is utilized during the spring game.

Additionally, outside of the offensive line, MSU fans will want to keep an eye on other injuries and see who is active and who is not. This will also be a huge recruiting weekend for Michigan State, with several four-star and five-star prospects on campus.

Earlier in the week, head coach Mel Tucker, running backs coach Effrem Reed and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton spoke to the media. The comments are below in video form.

Mel Tucker’s Monday Remarks

Effrem Reed’s Thursday Remarks

Scottie Hazleton’s Thursday Remarks