Over the past month, the Michigan State football program was able to participate in a series of 15 spring practices, which culminated in Saturday’s annual spring game at Spartan Stadium.
The event was televised on the Big Ten Network and viewed in person by roughly 15,000 to 20,000 fans who braved the surprisingly chilly and windy mid-April Michigan weather. The event was not structured as a game, but rather as a series of drills and individual position work, followed by a controlled 11-on-11 situational scrimmage.
Following the spring game, fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson, junior linebacker/nickelback Darius Snow, redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne and redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed talked to the media about their experiences during the spring, how the Michigan State program is evolving and what to expect when the Green and White takes to the field again this fall.
Building from Last Year
The Michigan State Spartans were one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten and in the country in the fall of 2021, as the Spartans amassed an 11-2 record, including a New Year’s Six Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Peach Bowl. Michigan State finished the season ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll.
As the 2022 season approaches, the question is how do the Spartans stay hungry and build on the success of head coach Mel Tucker’s sophomore campaign? Reed and Thorne both seemed driven to achieve even greater things in the future.
“Never get complacent, never get comfortable with where you are,” Reed said. “Always have the mindset to grow. That’s what we’re looking for. We want to build upon what we went off last year and do even better.”
Thorne agreed with Reed’s sentiments.
“For me growing up and through my whole life, it’s never been a goal of mine to come (in) ninth (place) in anything,” Thorne said. “There’s always more. Even if you finish first, there’s more, it never stops.”
Thorne and the other Michigan State players are also well aware of the buzz and the momentum the football program currently has going into the 2022 season. Thorne knows it is up to the Spartans themselves to exceed the expectations.
“There’s excitement around the program right now, and it’s our job to bring more excitement,” Thorne said. “As a team, we’ve got to come in every day with the goal to be better than we were last year. We have different goals this year and we’re going to hold ourselves to a high standard.”
One of the ways that Coach Tucker plans to have his team continue to evolve is in the area of leadership. Michgian State head basketball coach Tom Izzo often talks about the value of a “player-led team.”
On Saturday, both Tucker and his players used this term to describe the growing leadership in the Spartan locker room. It seems that the Michigan State staff has worked hard to foster this mindset over the past few months. Thorne mentioned hearing from several guest speakers, such as noted sports psychologist and motivational speaker Dr. Kevin Elko. He also mentioned that the team participated in Navy SEAL training.
Thorne talked about how he has observed the different leaders on the team start to evolve, and Reed agreed.
“Guys who usually don’t speak up have started to speak up and be vocal leaders,” Reed said. He then added that this is probably the most important way that the team has grown and started to bond this spring.
Reed also had a lot to say about the leadership of Thorne, his childhood friend and current quarterback.
“This kid’s (Thorne’s) leadership has just been through the roof, so that’s what I’ve noticed,” Reed said. “He speaks up more than anybody in the program, and that motivates me to want to speak up more, bring guys along and hold guys accountable. So that’s one thing that (Thorne’s) really done a great job at.”
But leadership also seems to be growing on the defensive side of the ball as well. Henderson — the only player in the program to serve as a team captan every week last season — had the following to say, both about his own leadership and the way in which he is mentoring his younger teammates.
“When Coach Tucker first got here, I thought that I was a leader, but he challenged me to become more of a leader,” Henderson said. “I felt like I did that last year, and now I feel like I’m in a position where I can help other people (be leaders). I can instill that confidence. They might not know that it’s there, but I can see it in all of them.”
X’s and O’s
In addition to the upgrade in team-level leadership, the spring game gave a glimpse into a few schematic changes that Michigan State fans might see in the fall. During the scrimmage, the Spartans showed a variety of different looks in the defensive front seven, including three down lineman, a traditional 4-3 look with three linebackers, as well as the 4-2-5 nickel package the team has primarily used over the past two seasons.
“That’s NFL style,” Henderson said. “They just match up personnel.”
Snow also commented on the new wrinkles in the defensive scheme.
“Putting more speed on the field is the big thing,” Snow said. “No matter what people come out with, we can match up. We have the personnel to do it.”
A big part of those changes center around the role of Snow, who took several snaps as a hybrid linebacker/nickelback during the scrimmage periods after having played nickelback and safety most of last year.
“I personally play a lot of positions and so do the other linebackers,” Snow said. “We have some linebackers playing defensive end because they’re athletic enough to do so. I played nickel and will (weakside linebacker) today. If needed, I can still play safety. So, I think that the versatility amongst the linebackers and the safeties is big because it’s going to allow us to be faster as a defense.”
The idea of playing linebacker certainly has a lot of appeal to the Snow family, as Darius’ uncle is former Michigan State all-American linebacker Percy Snow, who was the MVP of the 1988 Rose Bowl.
“I’m going to talk to (Uncle Percy) on the phone actually after I leave here,” Snow said. “When my dad (former Michigan State basketball great Eric Snow) talked to him about me being open to playing all these positions, my uncle told my dad ‘Make sure you tell him no matter where you are at, you have to hit somebody.’ That’s the number one thing is to be physical no matter where I’m at.”
That said, with Snow potentially learning to play up to five positions, labels may no longer make sense.
“I’m just going to call myself a ‘football player’ because I play everything,” Snow said. “So, I’m just going to say ‘football player’ for future reference.”
Spartans fans will likely also see some changes on the offensive side of the ball. A big part of this change may be a result of simply not having Doak Walker-award winning running back Kenneth Walker III in the backfield.
“Our offense is going to change a little bit,” Thorne said. “The play might not change, but the way we execute might change. I think about RPOs (run-pass options plays). Last year you probably didn’t see us throw too many RPOs because if that next guy that we were reading was close, you just handed it off to Ken (Walker). That was the rule. You just give it to him and all sudden it’s 15 yards. So, it’s going to be a little different this year (without him).”
Jimmys and Joes
While Tucker was tight-lipped about the depth chart, the four players who took to the podium following the game did provide some insight into what they have seen from their teammates so far this spring.
The question that was asked the most by the media revolved around which quarterback on the roster was positioned to be “QB2” behind Payton Thorne. When Thorne was asked about his backup directly, he had the following to say:
“I thought Noah Kim had a really, really solid spring,” Thorne said. “It was fun playing with him. He was very crisp the whole spring. He didn’t really have an off day.
“Hamp (Fay) did a good job. He’s coming along,” Thorne continued. “He’s doing the things that the coach wants to see.
“Then Katin (Houser). He’s a good dude. He’s fun to have around. Obviously, he has a lot to learn in terms of the offense, but he just got here. He picked up on it well. He’s doing a good job...He’s a quick learner, and he’s a very talented passer.”
Another position of interest this fall will be running back. There was not a lot of discussion about the successor of Walker, and several Spartans carried the rock on Saturday, including redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger, redshirt freshman Davion Primm, junior Jordon Simmons, redshirt senior Harold Joiner and redshirt senior Elijah Collins. Regarding the running back position, Thorne had this to say:
“You saw (Wisconsin transfer) Jalen (Berger) run the ball well today,” Thorne said. “We’ve got (Colorado transfer) Jarek Broussard coming in (this summer). We’re excited about him, too.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Henderson had a lot to say about the other players in the secondary. When asked who he felt was most improved over last year, Henderson mentioned redshirt sophomore cornerback Marqui Lowery and fifth-year senior cornerback Ronald Williams (who did not participate on Saturday).
Henderson also mentioned that he was impressed by the improved tackling of senior Chester Kimbrough, who took snaps as the nickelback on Saturday.
As for younger players who could see early playing time this fall, Henderson mentioned freshman cornerback Caleb Coley and freshman safety Jaden Mangham, both of whom are early enrollees.
“Caleb (Coley) played nickel, but he was playing corner, too.” Henderson said. “So, he’s learning a lot and his head is probably spinning. Caleb is an athletic dude and a strong kid, so could fit in the box when needed.”
As for Mangham, Henderson said, “I’m excited about Jaden and he’s a smart kid. I thought he was smarter than I was when I was a freshman and when I was his age.”
But the new player who drew the most comments in the postgame press conference was Georgia graduate transfer cornerback Ameer Speed.
“He’s very long and he’s fast,” Thorne said. “He presents problems for us. He’s a great guy to practice against. He does a great job disguising stuff, too. He’s a really all-around solid player.”
Reed perhaps said it best about the new Spartan cornerback
“I’m really looking forward to seeing Ameer Speed going against the opposite competition,” Reed said. “He’s impressed me...I think he’s going to be a problem for the opposition.”
Reed and the rest of the Spartans will have that opportunity this coming fall. In the meantime, the summer awaits.