The Michigan State special teams group will look different at the kicker position in 2022, as longtime stalwart Matt Coghlin has finally departed the program after becoming the all-time leader at MSU in made field goals and points scored.
However, for other positions, such as punter, the Spartans return some of the top players in the Big Ten from the 2021 season.
With that said, let’s break it down.
Stephen Rusnak, placekicker/kickoff specialist, sophomore
Rusnak enters his sophomore season with the Spartans after playing in five games last season, earning his first varsity letter at Michigan State. The kicker — who came to East Lansing out of Clarkston High School in Clarkston, Michigan — filled in for Coghlin last season after the super senior was injured. Rusnak is now locked in a battle with true freshman Jack Stone for placekicker duties in 2022.
Rusnak became the first Spartan besides Coghlin to kick a point-after-touchdown (PAT) since 2016, going 4-of-5 on PATs (3-of-3 at Purdue, 0-of-1 vs Maryland, 1-of-1 vs Ohio State) and 0-of-1 on field goal attempts (a 43-yard attempt at Purdue). He also handled kickoff duties in games beginning with Purdue, averaging 54.3 yards on 21 kickoffs for 1,140 yards and four touchbacks.
Rusnak will look to see action this season for both PAT and field goals, in addition to kickoff duties. However, head coach Mel Tucker recently said “it’s too early to say” and that it’s “not clear” who is going to be the starting placekicker. The competition is still open there.
Evan Morris, tight end/kickoff specialist, redshirt junior
Morris, a 6-foot-5 and 240-pound native of Elsie, Michigan, enrolled at Michigan State in the spring of 2019 as the No. 18 punting prospect per 247Sports, and No. 20 per Kohl’s Kicking Camps. He appeared in just two games as a freshman in 2019 to preserve his redshirt, handling 11 kickoffs for a 59.9 yard per kick average with five touchbacks. He transitioned to tight end for the 2020 season, though he also appeared in four games on special teams.
Last season, Morris’ lone appearance saw him handle four kickoffs against Penn State in snowy conditions. He managed 223 yards, averaging 55.8 yards per kick. He is likely to compete for a role as kickoff specialist, and will at least provide depth there.
Jack Stone, placekicker/kickoff specialist, true freshman
Stone joins the Spartans as a true freshman this fall out of Dallas, Texas. The 6-foot and 190-pound kicker was rated as one of the top kicking prospects in the nation, clocking in at No. 4 in Chris Sailer Kicking’s rankings. 247Sports ranked him at No. 11 and Kohl’s as the No. 20 prospect in his class as well. As a senior in high school last year, 70 percent of his kickoffs finished as touchbacks. He also kicked three field goals.
Despite the inexperience, Tucker’s comments would indicate that Stone may earn playing time as a true freshman this season, and could win the starting placekicker gig.
Bryce Baringer, punter sixth-year senior
Baringer, a native of Waterford, Michigan, has had quite the college journey thus far. The redshirt senior started his career at Illinois as a walk-on, and he redshirted there in the 2017 season. He transferred to Michigan State that spring and was called into duty in the fall of 2018 after first Jake Hartbarger, and then Tyler Hunt, both went down with season-ending injuries. Baringer left the team for the 2019 season, but then returned in 2020.
Baringer, listed at 6-foot-3 and 210-pounds, has 111 career punts for the Spartans for a total of 4,956 yards (44.6 yards per punt). He also has 40 punts of over 50-plus yards, hitting 33 inside the 20. He sits at No. 3 on the list of career punt average at MSU and is also No. 14 on career punts.
Last season, Baringer set a school single-season record with his 48.4-yard punting average, which also ranked as second-best in Big Ten history. He ranks just behind Iowa’s Reggie Roby, who averaged 49.8 yards per punt in 1981. He was the first Spartan punter to lead the Big Ten in punting since Mike Sadler did so in 2012.
Despite his success on the field, Baringer only earned second-team All-Big Ten accolades from the coaches and media last year, but also earned honorable mention All-American honors by Phil Steele. He should be set up for an extremely successful 2022 season.
Heading into his sixth season, Baringer holds his bachelor’s degree in advertising creative that he earned in December 2021. He has been named to the Ray Guy Award watch list and has earned preseason All-Big Ten selection by Phil Steele (second team) and Athlon Sports (third team).
Hank Pepper, long snapper, sophomore
Pepper, a sophomore from Chandler, Arizona, returns to East Lansing for another season after starting at long snapper in all 13 games last season as a true freshman. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 205-pounds, Pepper ranked as the No. 1 long snapper in the 2021 class, according to 247Sports.
He totaled 131 special teams snaps last season with 68 on field goal formation (48 PATs, 20 field goal attempts) and 63 on punt formations. He earned the MSU Special Teams Player of the Week award in the season opener at Northwestern after snapping on five PATs, two field goal attempts, and four punts, while adding a tackle after a missed 60-yard field goal attempt that closed out the first half.
Others on Roster:
- Ryan Eckley, punter, freshman, 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, Newsome High School (Lithia, Florida)
- Michael Donovan, long snapper, redshirt freshman, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Seaholm High School (Beverly Hills, Michigan)
- Donovan also joined the 2021 class as a long snapper signee, being rated the No. 39 at the position in his class by Rubio Long Snapping and the No. 1 in the state of Michigan. Donovan also played offensive and defensive tackle in high school for Seaholm High School. He used his redshirt last season and did not see action in any games.
- Eckley earned third-team all-state honors in Class 8A by FloridaHSFootball.com as a three-year starting kicker and punter on the varsity team at Newsome High School. As a senior, he averaged 42.6 yards per punt, placing 13 inside the 20-yard-line, while punting 28 times for a total of 1,193 yards. He also averaged 55.6 yards per kickoff, including 36 touchbacks on 51 attempts. Finally, he scored 52 points, a career high, on 28-of-32 PATs and 8-of-10 FG attempts.
- Unless the coaching staff becomes too worried about potential injuries, expect Jayden Reed to continue to return kicks and punts for Michigan State. It will be interesting to watch if any other players carve out a role as a returner.
This entry concludes The Only Colors’ 2022 positional breakdown series.