Michigan State’s spring open practice gives clues to team’s strengths, weaknesses

Michigan State wrapped up spring workouts with an open practice at Spartan Stadium,…

Michigan State's spring open practice gives clues to team's strengths, weaknesses 1

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MSU’s Payton Thorne on QB competition: ‘All of us had pretty good springs’

Quarterbacks Payton Thorne and Anthony Russo each connected with Jayden Reed for deep touchdown passes in MSU’s spring game at Spartan Stadium.

The Detroit News

There was no game. There were no winners or losers, at least, not on the scoreboard.

But that was hardly what mattered on Saturday. Michigan State wrapped up spring workouts with an open practice at Spartan Stadium, and that alone signified a victory of sorts for Mel Tucker and the Spartans.

A year ago, just weeks after Tucker took over as the program’s head coach, spring practice was wiped out because of COVID-19. Tucker’s first year was off the rails before it began. A difficult summer followed before the Big Ten finally started playing games in October.

Michigan State got through it. Tucker got through it. That’s really the best way to describe it.

So, when the Spartans took the field Saturday in front of about 6,000 fans — the first time fans have been in Spartan Stadium since the fall of 2019 — it felt like a fresh start. A fresh start for Tucker, a fresh start for so many of the players, a fresh start for Michigan State football.

“It was really great to get out there for practice 15 and to wrap up the spring,” Tucker said. “It was incredible to have our fans out there and the band and the cheer team, and that was something that we were all looking forward to, just getting back to normal.

“I felt like we got a lot of work done today. We wanted to be efficient, we want to get better, and just continue to gain ground and continue to build in a relentless manner. So I felt like we were able to get a lot accomplished today.”

There was no spring game, and that was disappointing in terms of following things in a traditional way. But the practice format was enlightening in many ways, offering a glimpse into what Tucker has been working with the past few weeks.

Here are some of the things that stood out:

Behind center

The quarterback battle will be in the spotlight well into preseason camp, and Saturday’s practice was the first chance for folks to see what has been consistently relayed by Tucker and his staff this spring — it’s a tight race between graduate transfer Anthony Russo and sophomore Payton Thorne. Both worked with the No. 1 offense at times and both had highlights, each connecting with Jayden Reed for deep touchdown passes.

“You can see we have really good competition at that position,” Tucker said. “They made some good throws, made some good decisions. I’m sure we had a couple throws we’d like to have back but just overall, I thought that we were efficient. They ran the offense, worked to take what the defense gave us. And you can see where I feel good about that position. I feel like we’re going to have really good production from the quarterback position this season.”

Thorne was first to play with the No. 1 offense, but by the end of the practice, he and Russo split the time evenly. Tucker wasn’t tipping his hand and hasn’t all spring. Expect the same thing right up until Michigan State opens the season in September.

The starting spot isn’t the only one up for grabs. Redshirt freshman Noah Kim got the most work behind Russo and Thorne and had his share of solid throws. Snaps were limited for junior Theo Day and freshman Hamp Fay. That is expected for Fay, but Day’s standing on the depth chart is surely disappointing to a player in his fourth year in the program.

Ground game

The Spartans have made no secret of making improving the running game a priority, bringing in Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III and expecting Auburn transfer Harold Joiner in the offseason. Walker, who scored 17 touchdowns in two seasons at Wake Forest, ran well on Saturday and showed good vision and a quick burst, two things that will certainly be a welcomed addition to the Spartans offense next fall.

However, Walker shared time with junior Elijah Collins, who has spent this spring bouncing back from a difficult 2020 that included overcoming COVID. Collins ran well when he got the ball and showed the toughness that allowed him to be Michigan State’s leading rusher in 2019.

Sophomore Jordon Simmons also got his share of carries, showing a three-player attack that could make up one of the more potent backfields in the Big Ten. Redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin also got a couple carries, as did senior Connor Heyward, but it was the play of Walker and Collins that stood out.

Offensive front

As well as the backs ran, none of it will matter if the Spartans don’t play better up front. It was tough to gauge on Saturday how much the offensive line has improved considering there were handful of players out, including J.D. Duplan, AJ Arcuri, Luke Campbell and Blake Bueter. It led to a bit of a makeshift first-team unit that had Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst at left tackle and Kevin Jarvis at right tackle. Matt Carrick got most of the work at right guard and James Ohonba stepped in at left guard. The real battle up front appears to be between sixth-year player Matt Allen and junior Nick Samac at center as both got time with the first team.

It was a bit of a mixed bag for the offensive line. They struggled at times in some drills against the No. 1 defense but played better late in the practice during scrimmages, though much of that was against the second-team defense.

Getting healthy will be critical, because the second unit had its share of issues protecting the quarterback. Again, it’s tough to give an overall assessment with the number of players out, so that’s a position to keep an eye on heading into preseason camp.

Defensive front

The defense is thin at linebacker and in the secondary, at least for now, but there are some budding playmakers up front, especially in the interior of the line. Junior Jacob Slade, a likely starter, did not play but junior Dashaun Mallory, sophomore Jalen Hunt and redshirt freshman Simeon Barrow all flashed at different times on Saturday.

Hunt and Mallory picked up where they left off last season while Barrow gave a glimpse of the player he could become. In fact, it appeared he is much closer to regular playing time than many expected before spring practice began.

“Barrow has continued to get better,” Tucker said. “He’s got some initial quickness, he’s stout in the run game. He can really help us and be part of our rotation as long as he continues to get better and just continue to improve. I like what I’m seeing from him.”

Defensive shuffle

The linebacker group is thin this spring and was even more so on Saturday with junior Chase Kline out. That left senior Noah Harvey spending most of his time playing next to redshirt freshman Cal Haladay. Things were almost as thin in the back end as junior cornerback Kalon Gervin was limited to mostly drill work and sophomore Angelo Grose starting at safety alongside senior Xavier Henderson. With junior Michael Dowell starting at nickel with redshirt freshman Darius Snow getting some time there, as well, that left plenty of inexperience at the corner spot.

Walk-ons Justin White and Zach Denha got plenty of playing time, but that’s a position that will get plenty of help over the summer as the Spartans add three cornerbacks from the transfer portal — Chester Kimbrough (Florida), Marqui Lowery (Louisville) and Khary Crump (Arizona).

The MSU quarterbacks had some fun going deep on Saturday, but that secondary will likely look much different in the fall.

Who’s missing

Wrapping up who did not play for Michigan State on Saturday:

Junior WR Rickey White, freshman S Michael Gravely, junior LB Chase Kline, junior TE Adam Berghorst, senior OL Luke Campbell, freshman OL Justin Stevens, junior OL J.D. Duplain, senior OL Blake Bueter, senior OL AJ Arcuri, junior DT Jacob Slade and senior DE DeAri Todd.

Stevens, who opted out last season, entered the transfer portal on Saturday while Berghorst is a pitcher on the Michigan State baseball team, which was hosting Nebraska on Saturday afternoon.

“I don’t I don’t have anything for you right now,” Tucker said when asked about the status of the injured players. “We may have something for you down the road.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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