If there’s one word that could sum up what Michigan State hopes to show Saturday when it plays host to this season’s version of a spring game, it’s competition.
Nearly every position on the field is a place where players are fighting for spots, and in the mind of Mel Tucker and his staff, that can only make the team better. From quarterback to running back to linebacker to cornerback and safety, playing time will be earned for a team that has seen its share of changes to the roster.
There are a handful of new faces from the transfer portal — six are enrolled and practicing this spring while the total haul sits at 13 — as well as four early enrolled freshmen. More will join in the summer, but for now, the refreshing of the roster has brought plenty of intensity.
“Competition brings the best out of everybody,” senior linebacker Noah Harvey said. “So, we’re excited to bring all these new players in and that’s going to push every single one of us in, especially in linebacker since we’re so thin right now. We’re looking forward to it.”
Most of that competition will be on display at 2 p.m. Saturday when Michigan State holds an open practice instead of the traditional spring game. There will be live scrimmage periods, so there will be plenty for the fans — up to 6,000 are allowed to be in attendance at Spartan Stadium — to process when it comes to what the team might look like when it opens the 2021 season Sept. 4 at Northwestern.
“It’s going to be a meat-and-potatoes-type practice,” Tucker said. “Not a whole lot of French pastry in terms of inside the lines. Whatever is going on outside the lines, it is what it is. But in terms of the practice, we’ll get out there and we’ve got to get work done.
“I mean, it’s practice 15 for us, and it’s another opportunity to get better. It’s the aggregation of marginal gains and we’ve just got to get 1, 2% better in everything we’re doing, every day, individually and collectively. That’s the goal with our practice.”
So, while it won’t look like a traditional spring game with the green team vs. the white team, there will be plenty to take in for those at Spartan Stadium and anyone watching live on the Big Ten Network.
Here are some of the story lines to follow on Saturday:
Who’s under center?
Of course, the quarterback competition is at the top of the list, and it likely will remain that way well into preseason camp in August. Expect graduate transfer Anthony Russo and sophomore Payton Thorne to get most of the work with the first team, though don’t rule out a few snaps for the rest of the group that includes junior Theo Day, redshirt freshman Noah Kim and freshman Hamp Fay.
Tucker hasn’t offered too much insight into the competition, saying only that it’s one that won’t be decided by the end of the day on Saturday.
“They’re just competing and working to get better,” Tucker said Tuesday. “It hasn’t shaken itself out yet. It will at some point, but it’s really too early for that to happen. I really like the progress that they’ve made. We’re working really hard and guys are getting better. We’re getting better as a football team, and that’s the most important thing at this time of year.”
Carrying the load
Quarterback is important, but there’s a battle at the running back spot that might be more intense than the one at quarterback. Connor Heyward is back for his senior season and surely will have some sort of role, but it will be interesting to see how things play out with a trio of backs that all are hoping to stake their claim. Jordon Simmons is back for his sophomore season after showing flashes in 2020, and Kenneth Walker III has been turning heads since transferring in from Wake Forest, where he scored 13 touchdowns last season. The wild card in the race might be junior Elijah Collins, the team’s leading rusher from 2019 who had little production last year.
Collins revealed Tuesday he contracted COVID-19 last summer and that it “took its toll,” leading to a season of frustration. He is back to 100% and running backs coach William Peagler says Collins looks “like a different player.” If he’s anything like he was two seasons ago, the Spartans will have plenty of options, along with redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin, who has also has improved. Add in Auburn transfer Harold Joiner and freshman Davion Primm in the offseason and it’s a crowded room.
The O-line’s rise
The consternation over the subpar rushing attack has focused mostly on the running backs, but the real work needs to be done along the offensive line, a position that has suffered its share of injuries the past two seasons. This year’s group finally looks healthy and actually has some depth, which results in more of the buzzword this spring — competition. Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst expects to vie for a starting tackle spot while A.J. Arcuri is back for another season. Sophomore Spencer Brown also has made strides.
Things are even deeper in the interior, where Matt Allen is back for a sixth season along with Luke Campbell. They are joined by veterans like guard Matt Carrick and guard/center Blake Bueter. Of course, they’ll be fighting with juniors Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain, who established themselves last season, while senior Kevin Jarvis could move back inside if Horst takes over a tackle spot. Other young players to keep an eye on include junior James Ohonba and sophomore Dallas Fincher, as the offensive line looks to flip from a weakness to a strength.
Newcomers seek opportunities
There are plenty of new names on the roster, and a few of them likely will be standing out. In addition to Russo, Walker and Horst on the offensive side of the ball, there are some names to keep tabs on defensively. The biggest might be graduate transfer end Drew Jordan, who came in from Duke and likely will push seniors Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley for snaps. Jordan has the versatility to play multiple spots.
The secondary includes cornerback transfers Kendell Brooks and Spencer Rowland, while four true freshmen — Fay, offensive lineman Ethan Boyd, safety Michael Gravely and tight end Kameron Allen — will bid for roles. It might be tough for Fay and Boyd to see time as true freshmen this fall, but don’t count out Gravely at a safety spot that has plenty fighting for snaps. Or Allen at tight end where the Spartans are looking for someone to break out.
‘Can’t make the club in the tub’
Injuries always seem to determine whether a team can have an actual spring game, but Tucker said Michigan State has done a good job avoiding any significant injuries this spring. Of course, it’s worth paying attention to who is playing and who isn’t, but for those that aren’t, they could be getting left behind.
“It means a lot to be on the field,” Tucker said. “You can’t make the club in the tub. So, we need to be out there practicing and getting in work and getting better. That’s how we have more competitive practices — the more guys that are available to practice and get out there and compete and get better, the better football team we’re going to have.”
Fans are back
The stadium won’t be packed, but just having some fans will be a welcomed sight for the players and the coaching staff. There will be up to 6,000 fans allowed to attend, marking the first time the general public will be allowed to watch the Spartans since they closed the 2019 season.
“We’re all very excited for everybody to come back, even if it’s a little amount,” Harvey said. “Just seeing people in the stands cheering for us, you know, we all missed it a lot. So we’re very excited.”
Added Tucker, “We’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. … Everyone wants to be in a stadium. Everyone’s hungry for football, and it’s just as a great opportunity for us to go out and show where we are at this point and connect with our fans.”
Michigan State open practice
► Kickoff: 2 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
► TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
► Tickets: Up to 6,000 fans will be allowed. Information on obtaining tickets is available at msuspartans.com.
► Health screening: All email addresses receiving digital tickets will be sent a link 24 hours prior to the event to complete a mandatory health screening. The completed health screening form must be shown to stadium personnel before entering Spartan Stadium. Spectators also will be required to pass a symptom checklist.
► Parking: Opens at noon and is free on campus in lots 79, 62, 126 and 63. Lot 124 will be available for accessible parking. Tailgating is not permitted.
► Other information: Concession stands will be open in both the north and south concourses where there is greater room for distancing. All concessions purchases will require cashless payment. Only the large restrooms on the north and south concourses will be open. Spartan Stadium has a no-bag policy that will be enforced during the event, other than required for medical reasons.
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