Mel Tucker is finally getting his first spring practice at Michigan State.
The Spartans kick things off on Tuesday, nearly a year after spring workouts were shut down because of COVID-19. Last year at this time, Tucker had been on the job just more than a month after taking over for Mark Dantonio, who announced his retirement in early February. Just as spring practice was set to begin, the plug was pulled.
To say Tucker and his staff were behind is an understatement. The late hire meant they had no input on the 2020 recruiting class and when the pandemic ended all spring workouts and led to a shortened preseason camp and an abbreviated season, it meant Tucker and Co. spent much of the fall going through an evaluation process of the entire roster.
So, in some ways, this feels like the true start for Tucker. His first recruiting class is signed with four of them already enrolled, a full winter conditioning program is in the books and now he’ll get 15 practices to get a better handle on where everything stands after finishing 2-5 last fall with both wins coming over ranked opponents.
There will be a fight for playing time at nearly every position group as the roster continues to evolve before the Spartans kick off the 2021 season Sept. 4 at Northwestern.
Here’s a look at some of the top story lines surrounding those battles as spring practice begins:
Who’s under center?
The battle for the starting quarterback spot will draw most of the attention this spring and potentially into preseason camp. There are plenty of names to watch, but the two most likely to be in the mix are graduate transfer Anthony Russo and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Russo left Temple as the program leader in passing yards (6,287), completions (536), attempts (899) and touchdowns (44), while Thorne played well last season and started the finale at Penn State.
There’s no doubt Russo came to MSU knowing he’d have the opportunity to start, though Thorne won’t give it up easily. Where the other quarterbacks stand will be interesting to watch, as well. Sophomore Theo Day has been unable to get much of a shot in his three years in the program and redshirt freshman Noah Kim has yet to take a snap. Also keep an eye on freshman Hamp Fay, an early enrollee and the first quarterback to be recruited by Tucker.
Carrying the load
As intriguing as the quarterback race will be, it won’t be nearly as jam-packed with options as the running back spot. The Spartans were one of the worst running teams in the nation in 2020, ranking 122nd in the country by averaging 91.4 yards a game with only two rushing touchdowns. Some movement along the offensive line certainly will play a role in how that changes in 2021, but there will be plenty of players fighting to get the ball in their hands.
Freshman Jordon Simmons showed some burst in his five games, gaining 219 yards on 56 carries for an average of 3.9 yards an attempt. He’ll likely be the guy to beat as sophomore Elijah Collins looks to regain the form that allowed him to lead the team in rushing as a freshman in 2019. Junior Connor Heyward also will be counted on as a pass-catcher and blocker while sophomore Brandon Wright has yet to find a consistent role.
The Spartans also will have some new faces in the room with transfers Kenneth Walker III of Wake Forest and Harold Joiner iii from Auburn. Walker, who scored 13 touchdowns last fall, is enrolled and will be taking part in spring practice, while Joiner is expected to arrive in the summer. Incoming freshman Davion Primm also will get his shot in preseason camp.
After switching to a 4-2-5 last year under defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, it has changed the linebacker room significantly. Still, there’s a big hole to fill for the Spartans as Antjuan Simmons, the team’s leading tackler, opted not to return for an extra season and is headed to the NFL. Junior Noah Harvey was the other starter and had his share of ups and downs, while sophomore Chase Kline was fourth in tackles playing primarily on passing downs. Whether Kline can jump into a starting role will be worth watching this season, while freshmen Cole DeMarzo, Cal Haladay and Devin Hightower will have a chance to crack the playing group.
It won’t all be solved this spring, though, as incoming freshmen Ma’a Gaoteote and Carson Casteel arrive on campus, as well as Michigan transfer Ben VanSumeren. Gaoteote was the highest-ranked member in the recruiting class and could make an immediate impact.
While the Spartans have brought in their share from the transfer portal, they lost their share, too, especially at cornerback. Four corners left, leaving Michigan State with only two players with starting experience — sophomore Kalon Gervin and freshman Anthony Grose. They’ll get most of the work this spring and will have a leg up entering preseason camp, but that’s when the battle could really begin.
Three players arrive via the transfer portal — Marqui Lowery Jr. (Louisville), Khary Crump (Arizona) and Chester Kimbrough (Florida) — will all be pushing for playing time, along with incoming freshmen Antoine Booth, Charles Brantley and Steffan Johnson.
Dating to last season, Tucker said Michigan State would be active in the transfer portal, and it has been. Eleven new players are either enrolled or will be by the summer, while 17 players have left. Along with the 2021 recruiting class, including four early enrollees, the roster will have quite a different look than it did a season ago.
Spring will be the first chance to see how the pieces start to fit together, but those pieces could change even more by preseason camp. The Spartans likely aren’t done adding from the portal — keep an eye on the linebacker spot — and there’s always the chance someone leaves after spring practice. Also, there are a handful of seniors we’re unsure about. Defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley as well as offensive lineman Matt Allen, tight end Matt Dotson and kicker Matt Coghlin will be back. But we’ll have to wait on others like offensive lineman A.J. Arcuri, Luke Campbell and Jordan Reid, as well as receiver Laress Nelson and defensive back Tre Person.
It’s a lot to sort out, but Tucker and his staff surely are grateful they’ve got an entire spring to work on it.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com