With the 2020 season less than a month away, we will preview each opponent for Rutgers this fall. SB Nation sites for every Big Ten school have provided a detailed overview of what to expect from their respective team heading into this season. We begin our opponent preview series with week 1 foe Michigan State.
The Mark Dantonio era is now over and first year head coach Mel Tucker is set to begin his tenure. With over two decades of coaching experience in pro and college football, the former defensive coordinator led Colorado to a 5-7 record in 2019 in his head coaching debut. The former Michigan State graduate assistant abruptly left Boulder in February to return to East Lansing to replace Dantonio after the longtime coach retired.
The Spartans are a team in transition under Tucker after back to back 7-6 campaigns. Three-year starting quarterback Brian Lewerke is gone, as are the majority of starters on defense. While Rutgers held a fourth quarter lead over MSU in its last trip to East Lansing two seasons ago, followed by a 27-0 defeat last year, they will be facing a much different team on October 24.
List your team’s key departures:
Offense: quarterback Brian Lewerke (three-year starter), wide receiver Cody White, wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr., tight end Matt Seybert,
Defense: defensive end Kenny Willekes, nose tackle Raequan Williams, defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk, middle linebacker Joe Bachie, strong-side linebacker Tyriq Thompson, cornerback Josiah Scott, cornerback Josh Butler, safety David Dowell
Special Teams: punter Jake Hartbarger
List your team’s key returnees:
Offense: running back Elijah Collins, wide receiver Jalen Nailor, wide receiver Jayden Reed (transfer from Western Michigan), offensive tackle AJ. Arcuri, offensive guard J.D. Duplain, center Matt Allen, offensive guard Kevin Jarvis, offensive tackle Devontae Dobbs, guard/tackle Luke Campbell
Defense: defensive end Jacub Panasiuk (who has opted back in after initially deciding to opt out of the season), defensive tackle Naquan Jones linebacker Antjuan Simmons, safety Xavier Henderson, cornerback Julian Barnett (played wide receiver in 2019)
Special Teams: kicker Matt Coghlin
List a few true freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact:
Jayden Reed, wide receiver, transfer from Western Michigan — recorded 56 catches for 797 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman in 2018 for the Broncos, earning Freshman All-American honors. After sitting out last season, he could be MSU’s leading receiver this year.
It will be interesting to see which true freshmen can earn playing time this season and which are redshirting (I am betting the majority won’t see the field much outside of special teams), but keep an eye out for safety Darius Snow (son of former Spartan basketball great and NBA player Eric Snow), wide receiver Ricky White, wide receiver Terry Lockett, running back Jordon Simmons, tight end Tommy Guajardo and cornerback Angelo Grose.
Brief overview of 2020 team:
It has been such an incredibly odd year, so defining expectations is a bit difficult, but I will do my best. The Michigan State Spartans hired Mel Tucker as its head coach in February, after Mark Dantonio surprisingly decided to retire. Shortly after that, Tucker put together a relatively exciting coaching staff. Fast forward a month or so later and campus is shut down, spring ball is wiped away and on-campus recruiting goes into an indefinite dead period due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Come August, MSU begins fall camp, which is then shut down after roughly five practices when the Big Ten decides to postpone the fall season. And now, practice is back on with an eye toward a late October start for the regular season.
Michigan State is a relatively young team, and although some of the players filling in have a few starts or decent amount of reps under their belts, inexperienced team. The Spartans must find a viable option at starting quarterback with Brian Lewerke now graduated. The likeliest starter is Rocky Lombardi, who is the most experienced option, but Theo Day and Payton Thorne are in the running. Quarterback is arguably the biggest question mark on the team.
The offense also lost a significant amount of wide receiver/tight end production with the departures of Cody White (who declared early for the NFL Draft, but went undrafted), Darrell Stewart Jr. and Matt Seybert. Essentially the whole offensive line is returning. It’s an experienced group with a new highly-touted positional coach in Chris Kapilovic, but also a unit that has struggled the past couple of seasons. Playing consistently and staying healthy is the key there.
Defensively, the team has to replace eight starters, so I expect a lot of growing pains on that side of the ball. With that said, as mentioned above, a lot of the players that will be stepping into bigger roles on defense have at least gotten in some snaps here and there, and a couple have even started a couple games, but whether or not these players are ready to play bigger roles is unknown at this current juncture.
All of this is to say, though, that I see no reason why MSU can’t win at least four games in the eight-game regular season, with a chance to get to five or six wins counting the final divisional cross-over game on Dec. 19. But who knows what will happen with a global pandemic still looming.
What’s your team’s biggest strength?
The offensive line, surprisingly, seems to be in the best position to succeed. There is enough experience on the offensive line to essentially have two separate starting-caliber five-man groups. Again, though, the inconsistencies and inability to stay healthy this group has shown over the past two seasons has been concerning. Elijah Collins proved to be a dynamic running back last season, and if the offensive line can run block more effectively, I expect to see marked improvement in the ground game. I think the young group of wide receivers has a lot of potential, too, but we have to see how those players develop and if there is competent play from the quarterback position.
Getting Jacub Panasiuk to opt back into the season is huge for the defensive side of the ball, as he is the highest-graded returning pass rusher in the Big Ten, according to Pro Football Focus. Antjuan Simmons is a leader and looks poised for an All-Big Ten caliber season. Those two, along with Naquan Jones (who finally gets his chance to start full-time) and Xavier Henderson, need to lead an otherwise green-behind-the-ears defense.
What’s your team’s biggest weakness?
I think quarterback is the biggest question mark. Rocky Lombardi has not shown enough in the past to inspire confidence, and he’s had a decent amount of playing time with over 350 snaps and 175 passing attempts. The other two quarterbacks in Payton Thorne and Theo Day are unknowns. Although, I think if offensive coordinator Jay Johnson caters to Lombardi’s strengths — he is a physically imposing presence who isn’t afraid to run you over (although we wouldn’t want to see a lot of that), and has a strong arm — Lombardi may just surprise some people this season.
While I would not call it a weakness, I also think the secondary is going to have a lot of ups-and-downs with a group that lost three of the four starters from last year (again, though, some of the players stepping in had a decent amount of reps last year). The defensive backfield has a lot of talent, but I expect growing pains. Julian Barnett makes the switch back to cornerback (the position he was originally recruited for) from wide receiver. Cornerbacks Kalon Gervin and Shakur Brown, and safety Tre Person all look primed for increased roles. Xavier Henderson is the returning starter at strong safety.
How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?
The majority of Spartans fans are excited about Mel Tucker and the staff he’s put together, from what I can tell. While we are forever grateful for the things Mark Dantonio did at Michigan State and the heights he took this program to, the last couple of years have been challenging and the offense has been borderline impossible to enjoy watching. Perhaps a fresh start is what this program needs. Unfortunately, we’ve had to wait an extended period of time to watch the Tucker era begin, but we will soon find out what he offers. Expectations aren’t too high for the team this year, so I think growth and improvement from week-to-week, and building a solid foundation for the future, is more important than wins and losses in this extremely odd and unpredictable 2020 season.
Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?
Elijah Collins is likely the team’s MVP on offense. Assuming health, he should be MSU’s first 1,000 yard-rusher since Jeremy Langford in 2014, after coming just 12 yards shy of that mark last year on 222 carries (4.5 yards per carry).
Defensively, Antjuan Simmons should lead the team in tackles and earn a lot of accolades. He will also lead the Spartans on and off the field. Entering the season, Simmons would be my pick on that side of the ball.
Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss:
I’ll stick with 4-4 for the regular season, with a chance to go 5-4 after the extra game. I think MSU’s best win could potentially come on the road against Iowa. The Spartans have had a lot of recent success against the Hawkeyes.
The Indiana game is a total toss up in my opinion. Michigan State has dominated the series, but I think the Hoosiers are going to be competitive with Michael Penix Jr. at quarterback. So, while I can definitely see that as a win for the Spartans, I could just as easily see that as somewhat of a surprising loss.
What else should we know about your team this year?
There isn’t a lot of hype regarding the Spartans, and probably. rightfully so, but don’t be surprised if MSU is more competitive than imagined. These players are confident and have bought into Tucker’s plan. I wouldn’t expect them to be competing for a Big Ten Championship, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see a few upset victories.
Thanks to Ryan for taking the time to give such great insight on Michigan State ahead of the season opener. You can follow him on Twitter here and make sure to visit The Only Colors for complete coverage of the Spartans. You can read my take on Rutgers for their site here.