5 questions Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker needs to answer at Big Ten media day

Detroit Free Press
When Mel Tucker walked out of Spartan Stadium in April, he knew plenty of questions still remained for Michigan State football heading into the summer.
But even he didn't know how many more questions would arise in the following weeks.
The Spartans officially launch their season Wednesday with Big Ten media day in Indianapolis. Tucker and three players – offensive lineman J.D. Duplain, linebacker Cal Haladay and wide receiver Tre Mosley – take the dais throughout the first day of the event to preview the 2023 campaign that kicks off Sept. 1 at home against Central Michigan.
The spring transfers of quarterback Payton Thorne (Auburn) and wide receiver Keon Coleman (Florida State) are now in the past. But those defections added a whole new set of concerns for the Spartans coming off last year’s 5-7 finish and heading into this year.
Here are a few things Tucker is expected to be asked about Wednesday.
1. Kim or Katin?
There is no bigger unknown about Tucker’s fourth MSU squad than who will be under center against CMU and beyond.
Tucker declared the quarterback job open in March despite having a two-year starter in Thorne, who led MSU to an 11-2 season and Peach Bowl victory in 2021. Thorne learned about the competition when Tucker spoke to the media two days before spring practices began, according to a source. A month-plus later, as spring workouts ended, Tucker promised to “continue the competition throughout the summer and in the fall camp” between Thorne, Noah Kim and Katin Houser.
Instead, Thorne – wanting to avoid a situation like Michigan’s Cade McNamara experienced a year ago – opted to enter the transfer portal after getting mixed messages from the staff about his job security. The two-year captain ended his MSU career among the school’s leaders in touchdown passes (49, fourth), passing yards (6,494, sixth), completion percentage (60.9%, fifth) and completed passes (524, sixth).
The remaining competitors own a combined 44 collegiate snaps between them. Kim, a former three-star recruit who was part of Mark Dantonio’s final recruiting class in 2020, went 14 of 19 for 174 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in 38 snaps last season in four appearances (Western Michigan, Akron, Minnesota and Ohio State).
Houser, Tucker’s first four-star quarterback recruit, got six snaps late in a 52-0 blowout of Akron, completing 1 for 2 throws for 2 yards in his only action. True freshman Sam Leavitt, another four-star prospect, will join them but likely will be far behind in the pecking order after not arriving until this summer.
Expect Tucker to remain undecided about the starting job until deep into camp, if not into the early stages of the season.
2. Personnel updates (or not)
The departure of Coleman – MSU’s top receiver last season, who is expected to be a top 2024 NFL draft prospect – means the Spartans lost three of their top receivers from last season. Jayden Reed turned pro and was a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, while former four-star recruit Germie Bernard transferred to Washington in the winter after his true freshman season.
Mosley, a senior, should ascend to the No. 1 role after being a steady No. 3 the past two seasons. Tucker added former Nebraska and one-time MSU commit Alante Brown from the transfer portal for veteran depth, but a talented, young cadre of receivers – including Antonio Gates Jr., Jaron Glover and Tyrell Henry, plus incoming freshmen Aziah Johnson and Jaelen Smith – will be counted on to turn talent into production.
Along with the exit of Coleman and arrival of Brown, Tucker also will likely be asked about a few other personnel and health matters – two things he generally has eschewed talking about throughout the year, not just in-season.
-He dodged discussing Darius Snow’s status in the spring after the safety-turned-linebacker suffered a season-ending injury in last year’s opening game, and it is unclear if the Spartans can expect the redshirt junior to contribute this season or in what capacity.
-Cornerback Khary Crump was reinstated May 1 following his role in the tunnel fight at Michigan, where he swung a helmet. He received an eight-game suspension for this season from the Big Ten, unless a deal was worked out to lessen the punishment after Crump sat the final four games last season. Does Tucker expect him to contribute this fall?
-The portal has been fluid regardless of what time of the season. Did MSU experience any surprise additions or subtractions to the roster with preseason camp set to begin next week?
3. Run game reset
If the quarterback competition is the top issue, how the offensive line and running backs look is a close second.
MSU ranked 110th out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision schools at 113.0 rushing yards per game and 127th in time of possession (26:13), while its 16 rushing touchdowns were tied for 92nd last season. The Spartans ran for 551 of their 1,356 ground yards in three of the last four games against Illinois, Rutgers and Indiana; 457 more came in the first two nonconference games against WMU and Akron.
Two of the top three running backs (Elijah Collins and Jarek Broussard) left the program after the season, and the Spartans replaced them with incoming transfers Nate Carter (Connecticut) and Jaren Mangham (South Florida). Those two will battle with incumbent starter Jalen Berger for the No. 1 role, with returning reserves Davion Primm and Jordon Simmons along with newcomer Jaelon Barbarin hoping to crack the mix for carries.
To improve, though, they need an offensive line to provide better openings and blocking than a year ago. The starting five looked in place coming out of spring practices – Brandon Baldwin at left tackle, Duplain at left guard, Nick Samac at center, Geno VanDeMark at right guard and Spencer Brown at right tackle. However, junior college transfer Keyshawn Blackstock could make an impact and seize one of the tackle jobs, and a group of younger linemen will add some sorely-lacking depth up front – something Tucker likely should gush about this week.
4. Will the defense improve?
Injuries and eventually suspensions hamstrung MSU’s defense all last season.
The Spartans finished 101st in rush defense at 178.6 yards allowed per game, yielding eight straight 100-plus-yard games to Big Ten running backs. Their two interceptions were the fewest in the FBS as the secondary gave up 237.9 passing yards to rank 86th. MSU’s 29 sacks tied for 56th, down from 42 in 2021.
Getting Jacoby Windmon, Zion Young and Brandon Wright back from suspension should improve the pass rush. Adding transfers Tunmise Adeleye (Texas A&M), Jalen Sami (Colorado), Jarrett Jackson (Florida State) and Dre Butler (Liberty) should complement the returning strength on the inside of MSU’s defensive line. Tucker again turned to the portal to bolster the secondary depth, bringing in Terry Roberts (Iowa), Amorion Smith (Cincinnati), and Semar Melvin (Wisconsin) to go along with a young group of players highlighted by sophomores Jaden Mangham and Dillon Tatum.
It marks the third straight year of major additions to a defense that was supposed to be Tucker’s hallmark, but the production has been subpar – particularly in the back end. What makes this the year that it will all come together? That is a question Tucker might only be able to answer during the season.
5. Special (teams) concerns
There may be no bigger special teams loss in the Big Ten and possibly all of college football than Bryce Baringer, who led the nation in punting last season before becoming a sixth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots. He helped boot the Spartans out of dicey situations when their offense sputtered and could flip the field in a flash. Backup Ryan Eckley got one punt against Akron that went 41 yards, and the redshirt freshman exited the spring as MSU’s only punter on the roster.
The Spartans also had issues at kicker all last season. Jack Stone and Ben Patton combined to make just 13 of 19 field-goal attempts, and both are no longer with the program. MSU had just one kicker, Stephan Rusnak, during spring practices, with North Carolina transfer Jonathan Kim expected to join the Spartans this summer. Who will handle kickoffs also will be a major concern. And as Patton’s transfer from Auburn during preseason camp last year showed, Tucker isn’t afraid to add new players all the way up until the start of the season.
With Reed’s departure, MSU loses a dynamic punt returner who was a threat to score on any touch. Henry, who emerged as a kickoff returner as a freshman last season, likely will get the first crack at that job.

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