As we near the start of yet another Big Ten football season, we are going to start rolling out previews of each conference opponent the Nebraska Cornhuskers will play this year. Big Ten SB Nation site managers (including Jon Johnston from Corn Nation) have been gracious enough to provide valuable and detailed insights into their respective school they cover, though some are still working on finishing these. As a result, we will do our best to run these articles in the order they appear on the schedule, but some differences may result (such as Michigan State being published prior to Illinois, despite Illinois being the season opener this Saturday).
Nebraska travels to Spartan Stadium for the first time since 2014 this season. It will mark just the third time UNL has visited East Lansing since joining the conference exactly one decade ago. To help us learn more about Nebraska’s second conference opponent, Ryan O’Bleness, managing editor of The Only Colors — the quintessential website for all things Michigan State — has provided in-depth answers about what to expect from the Spartans in 2021.
With that introduction done, let’s jump right into it.
List your team’s key departures:
- Rocky Lombardi, quarterback (transferred to Northern Illinois)
- Antjuan Simmons, linebacker (entered NFL Draft)
- Shakur Brown, cornerback (entered NFL Draft)
- Naquan Jones, defensive tackle (entered NFL Draft)
- Julian Barnett, cornerback/wide receiver (transferred to Memphis)
- Devontae Dobbs, offensive tackle, (transferred to Memphis)
- Chris Jackson, cornerback, (transferred to Washington State)
- Tre’von Morgan, wide receiver (transferred to Kentucky)
- Dominique Long, defensive back/special teams ace (transferred to Duke)
- Matt Dotson, tight end (didn’t return for extra year of eligibility)
List your team’s key returnees:
- Payton Thorne, quarterback
- Jordon Simmons, running back
- Elijah Collins, running back
- Connor Heyward, running back
- Jayden Reed, wide receiver,
- Jalen Nailor, wide receiver
- Ricky White, wide receiver (coaching provided update: currently no longer participating in team activities since publication)
- Trenton Gillison, tight end
- Tyler Hunt, tight end (and former punter)
- Kevin Jarvis, offensive line
- Matt Allen, offensive line
- Nick Samac, offensive line
- J.D. Duplain, offensive line
- AJ Arcuri, offensive line
- Jacub Panasiuk, defensive end
- Drew Beesley, defensive end
- Jacob Slade, defensive tackle
- Noah Harvey, linebacker
- Kalon Gervin, cornerback
- Angelo Grose, safety/nickelback
- Xavier Henderson, safety
- Michael Dowell, nickelback
List a few true freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact:
Michigan State added several transfers and many have the chance to earn an immediate role. Names to watch include:
- Anthony Russo, quarterback (Temple transfer)
- Kenneth Walker III, running back (Wake Forest transfer)
- Harold Joiner III, running back (Auburn transfer)
- Jarrett Horst, offensive tackle (Arkansas State transfer)
- Maliq Carr, tight end (Purdue transfer — he is recovering from surgery, though)
- Drew Jordan, defensive end (Duke transfer)
- Ben VanSumeren, linebacker (Michigan transfer)
- Quavaris Crouch, linebacker (Tennessee transfer)
- Itayvion Brown, linebacker (Minnesota transfer)
- Ronald Williams, cornerback (Alabama transfer)
- Chester Kimbrough, cornerback (Florida transfer)
Hard to predict which true freshmen will earn immediate roles, but keep an eye on:
- Kameron Allen, tight end
- Keon Coleman, wide receiver
- Ethan Boyd, offensive tackle
- Geno VanDeMark, offensive guard
- Charles Brantley, cornerback
- A.J. Kirk, safety
- Derrick Harmon, defensive tackle
- Ma’a Gaoteote, linebacker
Brief overview of 2021 team:
This Michigan State team is so different in 2021 compared to 2020 it’s almost unrecognizable, with 34 new players added to the roster and more than 30 players from last year’s team who either transferred out, pursued the NFL or didn’t return for an extra year of eligibility. Last year’s team went a disappointing 2-5 (with fun upset victories over rival Michigan and eventual Big Ten West champion Northwestern), but MSU was never really given a fighting chance due to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting right after Mel Tucker was hired. He never used the pandemic as an excuse, but it was obviously a huge factor in how he was able to develop his team and get familiar with his personnel (no in-person workouts, no spring ball, season initially canceled, etc).
The Spartans enter the 2021 campaign with low expectations from the national media, as MSU was picked to finish last in the Big Ten East in the cleveland.com poll, but a lot of the fans who are more plugged into the team seem quite optimistic. The program believes in what it is doing and the players and coaches have seemed to buy into that. With so many transfer players expected to earn a role, it’s truly difficult to guess where the the team stands entering the season, but I certainly feel like the Spartans are going to exceed the (low) expectations in 2021 and will improve throughout the season.
What’s your team’s biggest strength?
The wide receiver spot looks very strong with Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor, Ricky White, Tre Mosley and others returning. Also, after Michigan State struggled (to put it mildly) to run the football over the past few seasons, both the running back and offensive line positions should be much improved. I also expect the defensive line to play much better this season and get more pressures and sacks.
While I am not ready to call either the running back group or offensive line unit a “strength” yet, Kenneth Walker III and Harold Joiner III join Jordon Simmons, Elijah Collins and Connor Heyward in the backfield, forming a strong five-man group with each capable of starting or playing heavy rotational roles. Expect Walker to get the bulk of the carries and help turn things around on the ground. Meanwhile, the offensive line has been one of Michigan State’s weakest spots for years, but the team added Jarret Horst from Arkansas State, a highly-coveted offensive tackle in the transfer portal, and returns several players with starting experience. Hopefully this is the year that the offensive line turns it around.
What’s your team’s biggest weakness?
I wouldn’t pinpoint any one particular group as a “weakness” just yet until I see them on the field, but there are certainly questions marks all over this team. While I mentioned offensive line should be much-improved, the unit will have to prove it first.
There are questions at linebacker, although some of the transfers, particularly Quavaris Crouch, should help remedy that. Defensive back was a thin position in the spring, but Kalon Gervin, Angelo Grose, Xavier Henderson and Michael Dowell all return, while Chester Kimbrough and Ronald Williams could be immediate impact transfers in the secondary. The tight end position seems to lack a true threat who can excel in both the receiving and blocking areas. While I wouldn’t call it a weakness, there is also a big question mark at how the quarterback position will perform, regardless of whether Payton Thorne or Anthony Russo starts.
How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?
The majority of Michigan State fans seem to love what Mel Tucker and his staff are doing. He purged the roster (with 27 players transferring out and 19 players transferring in), added the guys who fit the culture and system he is building in his vision and put a serious emphasis on strength, conditioning and nutrition. He is also building a lot of recruiting momentum for MSU, and he just seems to have a buzz and obvious swagger that people are noticing. Tucker also often mentions “neutral thinking” — not getting too high or too low in the moment — which keeps him even-keeled and able to clearly think.
It wouldn’t really be fair to judge Tucker’s performance from the 2020 season — given it was the staff’s first year in a pandemic world that changed the way people do things on a daily basis. But as exciting as he is off the field, I am hoping Tucker proves to be a great on-field coach as well, along with his coordinators (Jay Johnson, offense, and Scottie Hazelton, defense) now that they’re entering year two in the system, added the players they want and are more familiar with the returning personnel.
Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?
I think Kenneth Walker III is going to be the team’s offensive MVP. So far through spring football and summer workouts he has not only lived up to the hype, but exceeded expectations. While other running backs will get touches, Walker is likely going to be the lead back and be the offensive unit’s top playmaker.
Defensively, I think Xavier Henderson is going to be a team leader and make a lot of plays in the secondary, ultimately being the unit’s most valuable player.
Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss:
It is honestly hard to predict when it comes to Michigan State and trying to piece together how all of the new players will gel with the returners. As mentioned, the expectations are very low from the national media, but I don’t quite buy that the Spartans are the worst team in the Big Ten East.
I could honestly see this team finishing with as low as three or four wins, or as high as seven or eight victories. I will go in the middle and say 6-6 with a bowl berth.
As for best win, Michigan State is probably due for at least one upset win, and I will say that will come at home against Penn State to end the season and secure a bowl bid. As for surprise loss, MSU lost to Rutgers in embarrassing fashion to open the 2020 season, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Scarlet Knights defeated the Spartans again this season, although it would be less surprising.
What else should we know about your team this year?
As you probably can tell, Michigan State was heavily active in the transfer portal. This is a brand new team that nobody knows what to expect from. Don’t count the Spartans out quite yet, as many people seem to be doing. Mel Tucker is laying the ground work to build something special in East Lansing, and even if this year is a struggle, the future looks bright.
It sounds like Michigan State is getting a redo on the start to the Mel Tucker era after a chaotic 2020 offseason and then an abridged season. Thank you to Ryan for giving us a great picture on the Spartans. You can follow more from Ryan here, and you can follow The Only Colors on Twitter here, which is the quintessential one stop shop for Michigan State news.