Michigan State football: Depth chart projections heading into Thursday's first practice

Detroit Free Press
Mel Tucker is in a strange position. Or so he sounds.
One minute, Michigan State football’s fourth-year head coach is talking about competing for championships now. The next, he’s pointing toward program-building.
Ultimately, it all goes together.
“When you have more competition on your roster,” Tucker said last week in Indianapolis at Big Ten media days, “then practices are more competitive. You just get better a lot faster.”
Which must happen for the Spartans to rebound from a 5-7 down year without a bowl berth, starting Thursday as practice begins less than a month before the Sept. 1 season opener against Central Michigan in East Lansing.
Tucker continued a two-prong approach to achieve the duality of winning and building at once. It started with building a strong incoming recruiting group that ranked as the No. 24 class in the country, bolstered by seven four-star prospects that were the most for MSU since 2016.
“Anyone that knows me knows that I have a high expectation for the program. It was that way when I walked in the door, for winning games and recruiting,” Tucker said. “I came in and talked about competing for championships, going out and recruiting nationally and going out and getting the best players and competing for the best players and signing the best players. And I don't think anybody thought that was going to happen, and it is happening.
“So no one has a higher expectation than me. And that's communicated through our coaching staff and to our team. So what anyone says outside the program is really irrelevant for me and for the staff.”
The Spartans were projected to finish fifth in the difficult Big Ten East in the Cleveland.com poll of conference reporters, behind two-time reigning champion and College Football Playoff participant Michigan, CFP semifinalist Ohio State, traditional power Penn State and upstart Maryland. Most sportsbooks don’t believe MSU will make a bowl game, setting the over/under win total between 4.5 and 5.5.
Yet much like it was in 2021, Tucker’s second season in which he went from 2-5 to 11-2, it is hard to gauge just how much the Spartans can improve with an influx of transfers on top of the prep talent accumulated during the past three recruiting cycles.
“Quality depth is important,” Tucker said. “We didn't have that at an enough positions a year ago. So when we got guys banged up, we just weren't able to answer the bell at a winning level. So that's gonna be important, we got to stay healthy. …
“I feel good about the team. But it remains to be seen. We got to go out and play the games, right?”
First, they must step foot on the practice field again together and find out if a 2021 repeat is possible or if a 2022 redux is on tap. Here is a look at MSU’s depth chart heading into a month of jockeying for jobs and competing for snaps (last year's starters in bold).
Starter: Noah Kim or Katin Houser
Reserves: Sam Leavitt, Andrew Schorfhaar
Analysis: MSU will have a new starting quarterback for the first time since 2020 after Payton Thorne, who started the past 26 games, transferred to Auburn in early May. And unlike Thorne, who started the Penn State game to close Tucker’s debut season before winning the job the next fall, neither Kim nor Houser has started a game since they were in high school. But at least they each got some action — Kim went 14 of 19 for 174 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in 38 snaps over four games, while Houser got six snaps against Akron and was 1-for-2. The remaining contestants for the job both showed flashes of talent and mobility during the spring, with Kim’s experience giving him a slight edge going into the summer.
Leavitt, like Houser, was a four-star high school prospect; unlike Houser, Leavitt did not enroll early and has a lot more ground to make up with knowing the playbook and establishing the timing and chemistry in Jay Johnson’s offense. Expect the competition between the two returnees to go all the way to kickoff on Sept. 1 against Central Michigan, and likely into the first few games of the fall.
Starter: Jalen Berger or Nathan Carter
Reserves: Jaren Mangham, Jordon Simmons, Davion Primm, Jaelon Barbarin
Analysis: Carter (Connecticut) and Jaren Mangham (South Florida/Colorado) arrived via the portal and will push Berger — a transfer from Wisconsin before last season — for carries as the lead back. All three present differing styles — veteran Mangham owning a big 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame and bruising approach between the tackles; Carter presenting speed to the edge and agility through holes that evokes some shades of Kenneth Walker III; Berger being able to do a little of both, though last season he struggled against Power Five opponents before an uptick in three of the final four games, capped by a season-high 119 yards and 21 carries in a double-overtime home loss to Indiana.
Simmons remains an option after leading MSU in rushing in 2020 as a true freshman, and Tucker’s two recruits — Primm and Barbarin – will try and leapfrog the others and establish their future in the program that has brought in six running back transfers the past three seasons.
Starters: Tre Mosley, Montorie Foster, Christian Fitzpatrick
Reserves: Alante Brown, Tyrell Henry, Antonio Gates Jr., Jaron Glover, Aziah Johnson, Jaelen Smith, Sebastian Brown
Analysis: The post-spring transfers of Keon Coleman and Thorne dealt a major blow to what was expected to be a strong point of MSU’s offense this season, even with the departure of Reed to the NFL, after averaging 240 passing yards a game. Instead, the untested raw talent of the past few recruiting classes will get a chance to fill the void. Mosley is the only proven commodity, a big-bodied strong route-runner with excellent hands. Foster should be in the mix for a major role coming off a foot injury that hampered him all last season following his emergence as a starter late in 2021. Tucker brought in former Spartan commit Alante Brown from Nebraska as a transfer with Big Ten experience, while Fitzpatrick gives a big 6-4 frame looking for his shot two years after arriving via transfer from Louisville.
Like Houser at quarterback, though, the future and upside rests with the young players. Four-star recruit Gates, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Antonio Gates Sr., along with Henry and Glover can become as downfield threats. Newcomers Smith and Johnson bring with them electric play-making ability waiting on their chance. Any of them can claim the No. 3 job with strong camps and emerge as future stars if they can make their quarterback look good by showing chemistry and consistency.
Starter: Maliq Carr
Reserves: Jaylan Franklin, Tyneil Hopper, Evan Morris, Ademola Faleye, Jackson Morse, Jack Nickel, Michael Masaunas, Brennan Parachek
Analysis: It is the third straight season where Carr appears to be headed for a breakout campaign after his transfer from Purdue. He caught 11 of his 14 passes, both of his touchdowns and posted 158 of his 209 receiving yards in MSU’s final six games. Still, the staff felt the need to add at the position and brought in three collegiate veterans in Jaylan Franklin (Wisconsin), Tyneil Hopper (Boise State) and Ademola Faleye (Norfolk State) to help expand the pass-catching responsibilities and ease some of the strain on having a new quarterback and mostly inexperienced receiving corps.
Parachek is a four-star recruit who enrolled in January and showed deft hands during the spring as well, while Morris – a converted punter/kicker, like Hunt – has under-the-radar athleticism. That group also will need to block much better on the edge than it did a year ago to help the run game improve, which could give Franklin a chance to seize a starting spot or provide Jay Johnson with an opportunity to use more two tight end sets.
Starters: LT Brandon Baldwin or Keyshawn Blackstock, LG J.D. Duplain, C Nick Samac, RG Geno VanDeMark, RT Spencer Brown or Blackstock.
Reserves: Dallas Fincher, Kevin Wigenton, Ethan Boyd, Gavin Broscious, Stanton Ramil, Cole Dellinger, Ashton Lepo, Braden Miller, Kristian Phillips
Analysis: MSU ranked 127th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in time of possession (26:13) and and 110th at 113.0 rushing yards per game in 2022, averaging only 95.2 yards against Big Ten opponents. The success or failure of the Spartans’ season hinges on how much this unit has improved. Duplain and Samac have combined for 57 starts over their four seasons of playing, with Brown starting 13 in a row going back to the 2021 Peach Bowl win over Pitt. The experience drops off from there, with Baldwin having started the final four games last season at left tackle and VanDeMark getting two starts to close the year after playing a key role in opening up the run game for a win at Illinois.
It will be a critical camp for the rest of the group that is unproven at the highest level of college football. Blackstock, a junior college all-American last fall, will push Baldwin and Brown for their jobs. Fincher, the only other veteran, saw 15 snaps on offense despite playing 11 games last season, predominantly on special teams. The past three recruiting classes, including four-star newcomers Ramil at tackle and Dellinger at guard, have built depth Tucker and his staff hope they can mold into Big Ten contributors and eventually starters — some of them potentially by the middle or end of this fall with the ongoing downturn in MSU’s run game in four of the past five seasons (minus Kenneth Walker III’s breakout two years ago).
Starters: Khris Bogle, Tunmise Adeleye
Reserves: Brandon Wright, Avery Dunn, Zion Young, Ken Talley, James Schott, Bai Jobe, Andrew Depaepe, Jalen Thompson
Analysis: Nowhere did the Spartans suffer from a lack of depth more than at defensive end, first with injuries and then suspensions that limited defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton over the final four games. MSU used nine different starting defensive ends in the 12-game season, and that showed in a downturn from 42 sacks two years ago 29 sacks last fall. Getting back a healthy Bogle, a Florida transfer last year who missed the final eight games with a left leg injury, gives some experience. So does getting Brandon Wright back from his four-game suspension. Dunn got two starts late in the season as numbers diminished.
But like many of the offensive positions, The Spartans’ success at generating more of a pass rush hinges on some high-end talent collected the past two recruiting cycles. There are big expectations for the four-star trio of Jobe, DePaepe and Thompson to make an immediate impact, and MSU also picked up 2022 four-star prospect Ken Talley from the portal before last season (he was ineligible due to NCAA rules after leaving Penn State in preseason camp). Young also got two starts and appeared to emerge as a future contributor before being suspended with Wright for the tunnel fight at Michigan. But the biggest and most heralded offseason addition is the 6-4, 290-pound former five-star prospect Adeleye, whose arrival from Texas A&M hopes to make the Spartans bigger and nastier coming off the edge.
Starters: Simeon Barrow, Derrick Harmon or Jalen Sami
Reserves: Maverick Hansen, Jarrett Jackson, Dre Butler, Alex VanSumeren
Analysis: Maybe the strongest position on the entire roster, yet again. Barrow produced well enough at the point of attack to earn third-team All-Big Ten honors last fall despite playing much of the season banged-up. Harmon and Maverick Hansen also emerged as strong contributors in stopping the run up the middle, though most opponents exploited MSU’s attrition outside to go around the edge as the Spartans ranked 101st in rush defense at 178.6 yards allowed per game, yielding eight straight 100-plus-yard games to Big Ten running backs.
Tucker went heavy – literally – into the portal in landing veteran transfers in Jackson (Florida State) and Butler (Liberty/Auburn), then reeling in former All-Pac-12 honorable mention Sami, who played for Tucker at Colorado in 2019. All three of those additions stand over 6-5 and weigh more than 300 pounds. Add in former four-star VanSumeren, who got his feet wet in the first four games while preserving his redshirt last year, and the ability to shift Adeleye inside for speed rush packages and there is no shortage of flexibility and depth in the middle of the defense.
Starters: Cal Haladay, Jacoby Windmon
Reserves: Aaron Brule, Jordan Hall, Ma’a Gaoteote, Darius Snow, Aaron Alexander, Quavian Carter, Jay Coyne
Analysis: When Windmon and Aaron Brule announced they would return for their extra year of eligibility due to the COVID waiver, it gave the Spartans major jolt in the middle of the defense. Windmon was playing at an All-Big Ten level while beginning the season at defensive end and then moving to his natural linebacker spot when he got suspended for the final four games for the tunnel fight at U-M. His return instantly made MSU more athletic next to Haladay, and Brule after a slow start showed his pass-rush ability off the edge down the stretch as the Spartans began to use more 4-3 packages with him. A preseason Butkus Award candidate, Haladay led the Big Ten in tackles and showed improvement in coverage as he prepares for what could be a star-making season.
Hall received rave reviews all spring and is the future at the position, and potentially can play himself into the present plans as MSU looks to add more speed in space – particularly with former safety Snow trying to battle back from a significant right leg injury that cost him all but the first half of the first game in 2022. And Gaoteote, Tucker’s first four-star signing, showed toughness in goal-line situations and is looking for a more expanded role this fall.
Starters: Chuck Brantley, Dillon Tatum or Terry Roberts/Angelo Grose or Chester Kimbrough
Reserves: Semar Melvin, Marqui Lowery, Justin White, Khary Crump, Ade Willie, Caleb Coley, Chance Rucker, Eddie Pleasant, Philipp Davis
Analysis: The mix of young and old should provide an interesting competition. Brantley entered the portal and quickly withdrew after starting all but the final game last season. That final start went to Tatum, who moved from safety and appears to have a chance to join Brantley as a homegrown starter. However, Tucker’s addition of two experienced Big Ten cornerbacks in Semar Melvin (Wisconsin) and Roberts (Iowa/Miami-Florida) to battle for a starting role at either one or both of the corner spots and the nickelback position. Grose got three starts at the nickel after supplanting Kimbrough, who reclaimed the role in three of the last four games.
How much MSU will use a three-linebacker set this season also would limit some of those opportunities for a fifth defensive back. Lowery and White both have experience at corner, and White showed his speed in the nickel when given a chance before his suspension for the final four games. Keep an eye on Tatum’s classmates Coley and Willie, as well as freshman Rucker.
Starters: Jaden Mangham, Malik Spencer
Reserves: Grose, Armorion Smith, Sean Brown, Malcom Jones, Khalil Majeed, Harold Joiner III
Analysis: Replacing both starting safeties will be a challenge for secondary coach Harlon Barnett, with Xavier Henderson’s experience in orchestrating coverages in front of and beside him gone after five seasons. But the prevailing theme of young talent ready to step in and potentially upgrade the position is there. Mangham showed flashes last season as he started two games with Henderson injured before getting injured himself against Ohio State, but he has the length, quickness and intelligence to begin his baptism as the defensive quarterback. Spencer came on strong at the end of last season as a hard-hitter and downhill tackler who can also be used similar to how Darius Snow was pre-injury.
Grose started five games at safety last season but was hampered by nagging injuries that slowed him in coverage, necessitating the move to nickelback, but his experience gives Hazelton flexibility and options depending on the opponent. Tatum also could shift back to safety, where he spent most of last season. They all received competition with the addition of Detroit native Smith’s transfer from Cincinnati, and newcomer Brown could push for an immediate role as a freshman.
Special teams
Starter: Jonathan Kim
Others: Stephen Rusnak, Yousef Obeid, Tarik Ahmetbasic
Gone: Jack Stone, Ben Patton.
Starter: Ryan Eckley
Others: Michael O’Shaughnessy, Evan Morris.
Starter: Hank Pepper
Other: Drew Wilson, Sam Edwards
Starter: Tyrell Henry or Alante Brown
Starters: Tyrell Henry, Montorie Foster
Analysis: Nowhere are there more questions to be answered during camp than in the kicking and return games. Replacing Baringer and his nation-leading average could be impossible, but Eckley will get the first shot after sending his only punt of the season 41 yards in the Akron game and preserving his redshirt. Ohio State transfer O’Shaughnessy also only has one 41-yard punt on his collegiate resume, but he will push for the job. At kicker, which was a revolving door last season, North Carolina transfer Kim must outkick returning walk-on Rusnak for both the place-kicking and kickoff duties. Steady veteran long snapper Pepper is back after missing the last seven games of 2022 with an injury, and junior college transfer Wilson and walk-on linebacker Edwards will fight for what MSU learned can be a crucial backup job. Finding a replacement for Reed, who could score on any touch on punts and kickoffs, will be vital. Henry took over the kick return duties for Reed early in the season, and Foster has experience on kickoffs as well. The punt return job, though, appears to be up for grabs and could be a spot for a freshman with speed and vision to make an immediate impact.

Players mentioned in this article

Albert Tucker

Noah Kim

Katin Houser

Sam Leavitt

Payton Thorne

Alex Hawthorne

Aaron Kimball

Jonas Houseright

Caleb Leavitt

Jalen Berger

Johnathan Carter

Jaren Mangham

Jordon Simmons

Davion Primm

Jaelon Barbarin

Abdul Carter

Alex Friedenberger

Jaden Mangham

Kenneth Walker III

Tre Mosley

Montorie Foster Jr.

Alante Brown

Tyrell Henry

Antonio Gates Jr.

Jaron Glover

Aziah Johnson

Jaelen Smith

Sebastian Brown

Keon Coleman

Alex Mosley

Aaron Foster

Austin Fitzpatrick

Aaron Henry

Anthony Glover

A.J. Johnson

Jaylan Franklin

Tyneil Hopper

Evan Morris

Jack Nickel

A.J. McCarron

Aaron Morris

Aaron Hunt

Jay Johnson

Brandon Baldwin

Keyshawn Blackstock

Nick Samac

Dallas Fincher

Kevin Wigenton II

Ethan Boyd

Gavin Broscious

Stanton Ramil

Cole Dellinger

Ashton Lepo

Braden Miller

Kristian Phillips

A.J. Brown

Adam Pittser

Avyd Baldwin

Geno VanDeMark

Khris Bogle

Brandon Wright

Avery Dunn

Zion Young

Ken Talley

James Schott

Bai Jobe

Andrew Depaepe

Jalen Thompson

Aaron Dunn

Aaron Wright

Simeon Barrow Jr.

Derrick Harmon

Jalen Sami

Maverick Hansen

Jarrett Jackson

Dre Butler

Alex VanSumeren

A.J. Harmon

Tunmise Adeleye

Cal Haladay

Jacoby Windmon

Aaron Brule

Jordan Hall

Darius Snow

Aaron Alexander

Quavian Carter

Dillon Tatum

Terry Roberts

Angelo Grose

Chester Kimbrough

Semar Melvin

Marqui Lowery Jr.

Justin White

Khary Crump

Ade Willie

Caleb Coley

Anthony Rucker

Eddie Pleasant

Brantley Kendall

AJ Roberts

Brad Coley

Malik Spencer

Armorion Smith

DeSean Brown

Harold Joiner III

Jack Stone

Alan-Michael Cash

Hank Pepper

Andrew Wilson

Sam Edwards

A.J. Edwards

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