Michigan State Football recently completed its Spring Game Open Practice. While the event largely featured players stretching and running drills, it still provided important media access to players and coaches. A major piece of news to come out of the event was quarterback Payton Thorne confirming he spent the bulk of last season fighting injuries while serving as the starter.
During his media availability, Thorne stated that starting with a sack in the first game of the season, a small injury he was nursing turned into a much larger problem. From there the situation compounded as he took hit after hit through the rigors of the season.
“I spent more time in the training room than I did in my first two years combined,” Thorne told reporters.
This is significant news. Even if Thorne is now fully healed physically, his reputation is clearly still nursing injuries.
Most Spartan fans have spent the off season highly critical of Payton Thorne’s performance last year. A common sentiment hardened into fact for many people that Thorne’s performance in MSU’s 11-2 season two years ago was a fluke. Those defending Thorne would point out that in his second year as the starter, he played behind a woeful offensive line, had inconsistent support from his skill players, and was forced to play significantly from behind in many games - limiting the offenses options.
Even his most ardent supporters were still forced to often acknowledge than in his second year leading the offense, Thorne looked worse. His throws were not as crisp and his running ability seemed to have deserted him.
Now, those supporters find out they have another key talking point: Thorne was injured all year.
Sticking with Michigan State’s ethos of not discussing injuries, Thorne looked visibly uncomfortable as reporters prodded him for details. He finally acknowledged (I’m paraphrasing) it started as a lower body thing, then turned into an upper body, then compounded by a lower body thing. Here’s THE thing: All of that is bad news for a quarterback’s ability to execute plays.
In not discussing injuries, Thorne is following the example set by Michigan State’s coach Mel Tucker. Tucker is well known for his lack of transparency about injuries.
Unlike in professional football, College football has no injury report requirements. Coaches and programs are not required to disclose any details of their players health, and most programs are tight lipped about injury details.
The theory behind the lack of transparency stems from a belief that an opponent could target a player’s injury and try to intentionally worsen it during a game.
While there is some logic to that in season, Tucker’s insistence on extending that top secret level of secrecy year round is putting his players at a disadvantage.
Case in point, the current fan reaction to Payton Thorne.
While it may have protected Thorne during the season to have opponents not know he was physically limited, in the offseason it has helped open a tidal wave of criticism.
The recent push for red shirt freshman Katin Houser to be the starter by a large segment of the fanbase may have been quieter, if everyone viewed Thorne performance through the lens of injury. Certainly, the level of vitriol and dismissive comments of Thorne’s capabilities would have been quieter (even if only a little).
In this case, Mel Tucker’s unwillingness to share crucial information about his key players - even in the final press conference of the year when opponents were no longer a risk - left his player open to attack.
How much would it help Thorne’s confidence and psyche having a less negativity thrown his way? We’ll never know. There are obviously fans that want Katin Houser to start, and the recent revelation that Noah Kim is truly the one battling Thorne for the starting role this Fall means Thorne was always destined for some adversity. Neither of those facts are impacted directly by awareness of Thorne’s injury.
The same cannot be said for another star player that got the top secret injury treatment from Mel Tucker: Kenneth Walker III.
The powerhouse running back changed Michigan State in one season. Walker transferred into the program and proceeded to demolish opponents. For the first half of the season, he truly looked unstoppable.
Then he started to slow down. There were vague references to potential injuries, but nothing concrete and nothing ever confirmed. This problem came to a head during the the Ohio State game. Michigan State came into the game ranked 7th in the nation, and a national audience tuned in to watch the Spartans - and specifically Kenneth Walker - take on the Buckeyes.
Everyone not supporting Ohio State was disappointed. Michigan State got blown out, and crucially for Walker he was a non-factor. Walker had just 6 carries. While he averaged more than four yards per carry, he lacked the burst that defined his game and simply did not see the field for much of the game.
The national narrative from that day forward changed on Walker. He went from a top pick for the Heisman Trophy to not even getting an invite as a finalist.
The national media is fickle and easily distractible. In the one game they, and casual fans, were guaranteed to tune in to see Walker play, he looked like a forgotten player. Tucker stopped using him as the team fell behind, and he was given no opportunity to impact the game.
If Tucker had come out and said Walker was going to be slowed by injury the narrative could have been completely different. This past year showed that. Top QBs around the country were routinely the topic of injury discussions. The Heisman debate amongst fans included comparing players that missed games due to injury and those that did not.
If the public were made aware of Kenneth Walker’s injury - even just the fact that he HAD ONE - he might have had a different public perception after the Ohio State game.
Instead, Mel Tucker kept quiet through the season, and afterward, leaving a hole in Walker’s legacy as a player that “didn’t show up” against his toughest opponent.
Better communication would have solved this, and served Walker better. For Payton Thorne, better communication around his injury status could have served him better - even if it came in the offseason.
Mel Tucker should consider the impact he is having on the psyche and reputations of his players through his reticence to discuss their physical capabilities. Protecting them physically by staying quiet may be costing them.