Storylines to watch as Michigan State football kicks off preseason camp

The Detroit News
There is plenty of buzz around college football this week as teams around the Big Ten and beyond begin to report for preseason camp.
At Michigan State, the excitement is contained to the Spartans’ locker room and the program’s most ardent supporters.
On the outside, there is no talk of conference championships and high-level bowl games. In fact, the Spartans were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten East in a media poll released last week, which is exactly where Michigan State ended last season when it stumbled to five victories overall and just three in the conference.
It was a jolt to a program that had won 11 games the previous season and leaves the Spartans in the position they are now with no one, outside of the Duffy Daugherty Building, expecting much from Michigan State.
No worries, the Spartans say. They’ve been in this spot before.
“Coming off that 2020 season, people thought we weren’t going to be anything going into 2021,” fifth-year senior guard J.D. Duplain said. “We proved a lot of people wrong that year. We talked about that a little bit and we’re looking to just prove people wrong again. We know what we have, we know the talent that we have, the team that we have and we know we can get the job done.”
That was surely the case in August of 2021. Mel Tucker was entering his second season leading Michigan State after just two wins in his COVID-shortened debut. At that time, no one knew a transfer running back named Kenneth Walker III would become a star or that the Spartans would remain relatively healthy, marching to a win in the Peach Bowl.
Things took a difficult turn last fall, however, as the injuries piled up quickly and Michigan State now faces the prospect of moving on without its top two offensive players from last year — quarterback Payton Thorne and wide receiver Keon Coleman.
But even as those outside the program haven’t bought in, those inside believe a turnaround is imminent.
“I think oftentimes you have to get kicked in the face before you can be great,” Tucker said. “We have a chip on our shoulder. No one was happy with the way the season unfolded, especially there the last couple games. It was very disappointing. We’re just hungry.”
As Michigan State gets set for Thursday’s practice, here are the top storylines to watch over the next few weeks as the Spartans prepare for their Sept. 1 season opener against Central Michigan:
All eyes on QB
Of course, the quarterback battle will the most talked about over the next few weeks, just as it was in the spring when Thorne was still on the roster but Tucker had declared an open competition for the starting job.
The candidates at this point are clear: fourth-year junior Noah Kim, redshirt freshman Katin Houser and freshman Sam Leavitt. How they all stand by the end of the month remains to be seen.
Kim had the upper hand at the end of spring workouts and Tucker had plenty of good things to say about the former Mark Dantonio recruit at last week’s Big Ten media days. But Tucker was also sure to point out it remains a three-man race. Houser has had plenty of hype and could still overtake Kim — perhaps even later in the season — while it seems like a long shot that Leavitt would get the nod.
The only thing that appears certain is it will be game week before Tucker makes the call.
Backfield rotation
As important as the quarterback spot is, the battle at running back is shaping up to be a fascinating one as Michigan State attempts to regain some of the Walker magic. To that end, veterans Nate Carter (UConn) and Jaren Mangham (South Florida) have arrived via the transfer portal while the Spartans added incoming freshman speedster Jaelon Barbarin as part of the 2023 recruiting class.
Of course, Jalen Berger, last season’s leading rusher, is back along with veteran Jordon Simmons and third-year sophomore Davion Primm, who has stood out in practice at times but has yet to crack the rotation.
It might not be the one-man show that Walker provided, but the talent has surely taken a step up as the running game looks for a revival.
Form a line
At the core of the potential impact of the running game is the play of the offensive line. Getting center Nick Samac and left guard Duplain to return for a fifth season each was a bonus. The Spartans are hoping for expected progress at the tackle spots from junior Brandon Baldwin and fifth-year senior Spencer Brown with sophomore Geno VanDeMark likely to start at right guard.
From there, the improved depth is critical as junior college transfer Keyshawn Blackstock will push to get work at tackle while a pair of true freshmen — tackle Stanton Ramil and guard Cole Dellinger — could see the field early. It’s also imperative for players like sophomore tackle Ethan Boyd as well as sophomore guard Kevin Wigenton II and junior center/guard Dallas Fincher to be ready to jump into the rotation.
In good hands?
It’s been a rough 365 days for the wide receiver position for the Spartans. Since they reported to camp last year to now, Jayden Reed became a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, Germie Bernard bolted at the end of his freshman season for the transfer portal and Coleman left after spring practice for Florida State.
It leaves Michigan State lacking in proven depth as fifth-year senior Tre Mosley is the one constant. The Spartans feel they have plenty of talent to fall back on, including senior Montorie Foster Jr. and junior Christian Fitzpatrick.
The real excitement, though, is with the young receivers. Sophomore Tyrell Henry got his feet wet last season on special teams while Antonio Gates Jr. and Jaron Glover, who ended up redshirting, should get a chance to stand out this fall. Throw in the arrival of transfer Alante Brown as well as freshmen Jaelen Smith and Aziah Johnson and there will be plenty of options for wide receivers coach Courtney Hawkins.
Beefing up
Tucker felt his defense needed to be tougher up front so that became a focus of the offseason as the Spartans bolstered the defensive line through both the transfer portal and recruiting.
Big, physical tackles Jalen Sami (Colorado), Jarrett Jackson (Florida State) and Dre Butler (Liberty) arrived through the portal and join an already solid group that includes junior Simeon Barrow Jr., fifth-year senior Maverick Hansen, sophomore Derrick Harmon and redshirt freshman Alex VanSumeren. It’s arguably the strongest position group on the team.
On the edge, potential difference-maker Tunmise Adeleye (Texas A&M) should spark the pass rush that will likely include seniors Khris Bogle and Brandon Wright, sophomore Zion Young and incoming four-star freshmen Bai Jobe, Andrew Depaepe and Jalen Thompson as well as former Penn State transfer Ken Talley.
The Spartans need a couple of these players to emerge and the next few weeks could be critical.
Kicking it
It’s hard to gauge until games are played, but the Spartans have big holes in the special teams. All-American punter Bryce Baringer is gone while determining who is kicking field goals and extra points has been a problem since last fall.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Eckley has one career punt for the Spartans and will compete with Ohio State transfer Michael O’Shaughnessy, who punted just once in four seasons with the Buckeyes.
The biggest question is at kicker, where Jack Stone and Ben Patton are gone after combining to go 6-for-12 last season on field goals. Sophomore Stephen Rusnak, who has attempted just one field goal and made five PATs in his career, is back and will compete with North Carolina transfer Jonathan Kim while walk-ons Yousef Obeid (Dearborn) and Tarik Ahmetbasic (Clinton Township Chippewa Valley) have joined the team.

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