Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2022: 20. Michigan State Spartans

Payton Thorne, Michigan State

20. Michigan State Spartans

Repeating 2021's magic will be difficult, but the Spartans have enough back to remain in the Big Ten East hunt

2021 Review
Michigan State entered 2021 with modest expectations, with their Las Vegas preseason win total set at just four. Mel Tucker's team quickly proved detractors wrong, beginning the year with a blowout win over reigning Big Ten West Champion Northwestern, then jumping to an 8-0 start. That streak included a thrilling, come-from-behind victory over Michigan, the only conference team the Wolverines lost to on the season. Going into chilly West Lafayette in early November, the Spartans' luck ran out, as they were one of a number of Top 25 teams to fall to Purdue in 2021. They responded by beating Maryland before Ohio State dropped 56 on them in Columbus in an uncompetitive, 49-point throttling. However, Michigan State deserves all the credit in the world for responding following the blowout loss, as they squeaked by Penn State to end the regular season than defeated a Kenny Pickett-less Pittsburgh team in the Peach Bowl. All in all, an 11-2 season and New Year's Six Bowl victory? A smashing success for Tucker and the staff, enough to earn them plenty of money and potentially set the stage for even greater things moving forward.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Junior quarterback Payton Thorne beat out Temple transfer Anthony Russo for the starting job last fall and led a strong Spartan offensive attack. Thorne finished with 3,233 yards and 27 touchdowns, while guiding the offense to nearly 32 points per game, was third in the Big Ten.

Thorne is now unquestionably the guy entering 2022 and should be considered one of the top signal-callers in the league. He doesn't jump out at you with his physical tools, but he made some really impressive throws last season and is the type of steady, winning QB any program would want. Thorne may be asked to do even more this year, as he loses his star backfield mate, Kenneth Walker III.

Few players were as surprising in 2021 as Walker III, a transfer from Wake Forest. Walker had proven to be a solid, productive back while in Winston-Salem, but he turned it to a whole different level last year. He was the most consistent tailback in the nation with 1,636 yards and 18 scores, earning a Doak Walker Award for his play. The numbers only tell part of the story; MSU turned to him every time they needed a spark or on a crucial play. His jump to the NFL was expected, but leaves Michigan State turning to a pair of new transfers in Jarek Broussard and Jalen Berger.

Broussard, who comes over from Colorado, is likely to get the first opportunity to show what he can do as the feature back in this offense. He was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year during the shortened 2020 season, but was a major disappointment in 2021, totaling just 661 yards. It's hard to know which was more indicative of his skills; 2020 was such a weird year it's hard to take anything from it, especially in the Pac-12, but Broussard was also banged up and didn't have much help in 2021. Either way, Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger should still get his carries; he flashed loads of upside in 2020 but didn't win the job out of fall camp last year and never got going. There's a bunch of talent between the two of them, but is it enough to replicate Walker III?

Thorne's weapons on the perimeter took a slight hit when Jalen Nailor left for the NFL, but Jayden Reed and Tre Mosley provide more than enough firepower. Reed has been incredibly reliable since arriving from Western Michigan several years ago and led the team in receiving. Mosley isn't quite as explosive as either Reed or Nailor, but he's a sturdy, physical target who should be a focal point of the attack once more. Behind those two, the receiver corps is untested, but that doesn't mean it's short on potential. Sophomore Keon Coleman in particular has been getting plenty of buzz, a former high-profile, two-sport star who had seven catches in 2021 but should be in line for even more. True freshman Germie Bernard could also see early playing time as one of the gems of the 2022 Class.

There's even more transfers at tight end, with former Illinois transplant Daniel Barker and former Purdue Boilermaker Maliq Carr. Both are strong blockers and proven threats in the red zone, but don't expect either to be near the top of the team in receptions. However, Barker has proven to be a reliable presence in the conference and offers a security blanket in the passing game.

While Walker III did a lot on his own, the offensive line deserves plenty of credit for delivering him holes on the ground. This is a unit that should be okay in 2022, with seniors Jarrett Horst and J.D. Duplain being the anchors. They'll man the left side of the line, but the right side isn't quite as experienced or deep. 

Losing a game-changer like Walker will always create some level of worry and concern heading into fall, but the Spartans should still have a strong offense. Thorne is back under center with several proven weapons on the outside and the backfield has two intriguing options in Broussard and Berger. Perhaps there will be growing pains as players adjust to new roles, but I still have a feeling this should be in the better-half of Big Ten offenses.

Defense: It's actually pretty amazing Michigan State managed to win 11 games and take down several big time foes with how historically inept their pass defense was in 2021. The unit ranked dead last in FBS football, allowing nearly 325 yards per game. It was so ineffective that, despite having a Top 15 rush defense, Michigan State's defense as a whole finished dead last in the Big Ten.

Fortunately, the Spartans return their entire back-end and added a host of transfers in their front seven, giving defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton plenty to work with. The fact of the matter is, the pass defense truly can't get any worse, and there is enough in the front seven for the rush defense to remain stingy.

The defensive line should be a strength, even if there isn't necessarily a star in this group. Jacub Panasiuk may be gone, but senior Jacob Slade and sophomore Simeon Barrow return at defensive tackle, while Jeff Pietrowski is back at end after notching 5.5 sacks. There are newcomers that should also help out, including Florida transfer Khris Bogle, Minnesota transfer Itayvion Brown, and true freshman Alex VanSumeren. Bogle and Brown didn't see a ton of playing time at their former schools but both come in with an important physique, while VanSumeren was the gem of this year's recruiting class. He follows his older brother, Ben, who originally went to Michigan after high school but ended up transferring to East Lansing to conclude his career.

Michigan State is going to run a 4-2-5 look most of the time this fall and there's no shortage of options at linebacker. Sophomore Caleb Haladay is the most proven defender, at least for players who have been on the roster, coming off a 2021 in which he was an All-Big Ten honorable mention. He led the team with 96 tackles last season and seems like a good bet to man the middle linebacker spot once again. In many ways, Haladay is a prototypical Michigan State linebacker; he's not the most fluid, athletically gifted linebacker in the world, but he's a physical, hard-worker who fits the program very well.

Transfers Jacoby Windmon and Aaron Brule bring plenty of defensive prowess to the table after coming over from UNLV and Mississippi State, respectively. The pair were both some of the better defenders on their team in 2021 and will vie for snaps; Windmon's an explosive pass rusher, which should help shore up a pass rush that finished first in the league last year, while Brule is a huge help in run support. He had a bit of a down season in 2021 after a huge campaign during the COVID year, so the hope is new scenery gets him back on track.

The pass defense struggles have been well-documented, but there's reason to believe this unit could be much improved. Just about every key piece is returning, and the Spartans add yet another impact transfer here in Ameer Speed, who began his career at Georgia. Speed spent five years at UGA, but was consistently buried on the depth chart. He started three for the Bulldogs in 2021 and should have a chance to compete for a starting gig at corner right away.

In addition to the addition of Speed, Michigan State brings back five contributors who played major snaps last fall in Ronald Williams, Chester Kimbrough, Xavier Henderson, Angelo Grose, and Darius Snow. Henderson is the most important returnee; the senior finished second on the team in tackles, added ten tackles for loss, and had three sacks. He'll play the leading role on the back-end, with Grose set to man the other starting safety spot. Keep an eye on Snow; he played safety last fall, but could be used at nickelback or even linebacker this season. Either way, his incredible range and closing speed will be an important asset to this defense.

With so much returning at every level, plus the additions of impact transfers, Michigan State's defense has a chance to be very improved in 2021. They'll also be helped by the fact they don't have to face a collection of elite pass offenses this year, as they squared off against five of the top 13 pass offenses in the country a season ago. I don't suspect a Top 25 unit, but if the pass defense takes enough of a step forward, Top 50 is more than a reasonable goal.

Special Teams: After a legendary career in East Lansing, placekicker Matt Coghlin has moved on. He finishes as the school's all-time record holder in points scored and field goals made. It's an open competition to replace him, without a clear frontrunner heading into fall camp. Luckily, punter is in a good spot with the return of senior Bryce Baringer, who led the Big Ten in punting last year.

Bottom Line: The Spartans arrived well ahead of schedule under Tucker last season, which can occasionally lead to regression a year later. Losing Walker certainly increases the chance of a step-back, but Michigan State returns enough pieces to remain a factor in the Big Ten East race. They should have a capable passing attack, a decent ground game, and a defense that isn't quite as prone to the big pass play this time around. Of course, playing in the Big Ten East, the schedule is unforgiving. The Spartans go on the road to Michigan and Penn State, get Minnesota and Wisconsin on the crossover, and play Washington in the non-conference. Those ingredients alone make replicating 11 victories likely unachievable, but 8-9 wins seems like a reasonable goal for Tucker's team. A second straight New Year's Six Bowl might be out of reach, but settling in to a solid bowl and remaining in the East Title hunt represents a good encore for one of the sport's breakout 2021 teams.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Mel Tucker enters the pivotal Year Three as head coach at Michigan State, with a new contract extension secured. Previously, he served one season as head man at Colorado and before that, had a lengthy career in both the NFL and college. Tucker has plenty of knowledge with the Big Ten, playing at Wisconsin during playing career and getting his start as a grad assistant at Michigan State all the way back in 1997-98. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has made his rounds as an assistant throughout the country; he was on staff at Georgia with Tucker and followed him to Colorado before the trek to East Lansing. On defense, coordinator Scottie Hazelton has held the same role at a number of different outposts including Nevada, Wyoming, and most recently, Kansas State.

Recruiting Breakdown
Michigan State's success on the field correlated to a strong showing on the recruiting trail, with the Spartans finishing inside the Top 25. The biggest name is Alex VanSumeren, a behemoth who should one day anchor the defensive line. At 6'3", 300 pounds, he already looks the part and could play snaps right away in 2022. As big as landing VanSumeren was, the more important work Michigan State did was offensively, where they landed a quarterback of the future in Katin Houser and several intriguing playmakers at receiver. Houser was a huge get from the state of California who is the most talented signal-caller the Spartans have had in some time and at a position where they lagged in recruiting during the twilight years of the Mark Dantonio era. At receiver, Germie Bernard and Antonio Gates Jr. were important additions. The staff went out west again to land Bernard, a one-time Washington commit, while Gates Jr. comes from inside the state and the son of NFL legend Antonio Gates. One other name to highlight that isn't as highly touted is safety Quavian Carter, a three-star prospect who MSU went into SEC country to land. At 6'4", Carter is long and athletic, the type of defensive back the Spartans need to develop to shore up their dismal pass defense.

2022 X-Factor: Jarek Broussard, RB
Expecting anybody to match what Kenneth Walker III did in 2021 is a near impossible task, but the Spartans still need production from the position if they want to contend in the Big Ten. Jarek Broussard seems like a safer bet to start than the other big-name tailback transfer, Jalen Berger, simply because we've seen more of him. His performance and accolades in 2020 were likely more an aberration than the norm, but he's still a talented runner who seems like a fine fit in this offense. Broussard should benefit from playing in a more open offense than the one-dimensional system he was in at Colorado and a resurgent campaign would be a huge addition for the Spartans.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: WR Jayden Reed
Defensive MVP: LB Cal Haladay
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Keon Coleman
Impact Freshman: DL Alex VanSumeren

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.