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With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, will look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2021 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.

Today we preview the Michigan State Spartans, who host the Huskers for their first Big Ten road game on Sept. 25.

After a disappointing first season under new head coach Mel Tucker, the Spartans have some serious holes to fill after losing a whopping 25 players from last year’s final roster to transfers.

That includes having to replace nine starters from an offense that ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in most categories in 2020.

The Spartans revamped their roster with 15 incoming transfers, but the search continues for a new starting quarterback, No. 1 running back, and three new starters on the offensive line.

MSU has some pieces to build around on defense, but it won’t matter much if the inept offense doesn’t drastically improve in a hurry.

We caught up with Graham Couch of the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal to get the latest on the Spartans coming out of spring ball.

Entering his second year at Michigan State, head coach Mel Tucker had to replace 25 players who transferred out of the program this offseason.
Entering his second year at Michigan State, head coach Mel Tucker had to replace 25 players who transferred out of the program this offseason. (Getty Images)

Spring overview

Last season was an adjustment in every sense of the word for Michigan State.

Introducing a new coaching staff during a season turned upside-down by COVID-19, the Spartans found themselves trying to play catchup seemingly from the day Tucker arrived.

As a result, MSU went 2-5 last season and finished dead last in the Big Ten East Division standings. They then lost 25 players to transfer and didn’t have a player selected in the 2021 NFL Draft for the first time in 80 years.

Needless to say, Michigan State needed some get some positive vibes going when it returned to work this spring.

The first order of business was at quarterback, as Rocky Lombardi – who started MSU’s first six games last season – transferred to Northern Illinois in December.

The top candidate appears to be Payton Thorne, who appeared in four games in 2020 and started the finale at Penn State as a redshirt freshman. Thorne threw for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and a pick in a 39-24 loss.

Temple transfer Anthony Russo might be the best competition there, especially after former four-star Theo Day transferred to Northern Iowa.

The Spartans are also looking for the workhorse running back that had become a staple of their offenses under former head coach Mark Dantonio. They brought in two Power FIve transfers to try and find that back in Auburn’s Harold Joiner III and Wake Forest’s Kenneth Walker III.

The offensive line lost three starters from last season, but there does appear to be some talent to work with at wide receiver with guys like Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor.

The defense looks to have solid returning leadership and experience at all three levels, highlighted by defensive end Drew Beesley, linebacker Noah Harvey, cornerback Kalon Gervin, and safety Xavier Henderson.

In all, MSU brought in 16 new transfers that could push for spots in the offensive and defensive rotations this fall.

Returning starters

While Michigan State is still looking for a new starting quarterback, the offensive line could be the biggest key of all in turning the Spartans’ fortunes around.

Five players on the offensive line with some level of starting experience in center Matt Allen, left tackle AJ Arcuri, right guard Matt Carrick, guard/tackle Kevin Jarvis, and left guard J.D. Duplain.

They also added Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst, a former All-Sun Belt Conference selection who some regard as one of MSU’s most crucial offseason additions.

There are several options at running back with the additions of Walker and Joiner and returners Connor Heyward, Jordon Simmons, and Eli Collins – who nearly broke 1,000 yards in 2019 – all back.

Former Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor, Ricky White, and Tre Mosely were a solid group at wide receiver last year. Add in transfers Christian Fitzpatrick (Louisville) and Maliq Carr (Purdue), and that group might be the overall strength of the offense.

Defensive ends Drew Beesley and Jacob Panasiuk return to anchor the defensive front, while Noah Harvey and Chase Kline return to provide experience at linebacker.

The Spartans made some major transfer additions on defense, led by linebackers Quavaris Crouch (Tennessee), Itayvion “Tank” Brown (Minnesota), and Ben VanSumeren (Michigan).

Safety Xavier Henderson and cornerbacks Kalon Gervin and Angelo Grose are back in the secondary, but MSU lost contributors from 2020. That includes corner Shakur Brown, who had all five of the team’s interceptions.

Receiver Jayden Reed is the top returning playmaker on a Michigan State offense that needs all the weapons it can get.
Receiver Jayden Reed is the top returning playmaker on a Michigan State offense that needs all the weapons it can get. (Getty Images)

Offensive star: WR Jayden Reed

A former FWAA Freshman All-American at Western Michigan in 2018, Reed made his Michigan State debut last season.

The 6-foot, 185-pound native of Naperville, Ill., started all seven games and leading the team in all-purpose yards (109.6 ypg) and catches (33), and ranked second in receiving yards (407).

He was also an honorable mention All-Big Ten kickoff returner after ranking fourth in the conference with 20.6 yards per return.

The Spartans have playmakers at wide receiver, and Reed is arguably the most dynamic of the bunch.

Defensive star: S Xavier Henderson

Michigan State has had a knack for producing top-level defensive backs over the past decade, and Henderson is the latest example.

The senior from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, has started 20 straight games and leads all active Spartans with 139 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, six pass breakups, and one forced fumble.

The 6-foot1, 210-pound Henderson finished third on the team with 41 tackles in 2020 while playing a team-high 511 snaps over seven starts.

Michigan State’s defense will look completely different from a year ago, but Henderson will give the unit valuable experience, leadership, and proven production.

Safety Xavier Henderson leads an MSU defense that will look completely different from last year.
Safety Xavier Henderson leads an MSU defense that will look completely different from last year. (Getty Images)

Spring surprise: RB Kenneth Walker

Michigan State already had plenty of returning experience at running back this spring, but Walker wasted little time in putting his name firmly in the backfield discussion.

A third-year sophomore transfer from Wake Forest, Walker rushed for 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns in 20 games with the Demon Deacons. He had 13 touchdowns last season, ranking third in the ACC.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound native of Arlington, Tenn., transferred to the Spartans with the assumption that he would compete for immediate playing time.

But given the amount of praise he garnered from his new coaches and teammates alike through his first 15 practices with MSU, it’s clear Walker is a legitimate candidate for the starting job.

Biggest question: Will the offensive line finally step up?

Michigan State’s offense has been treading water since 2015, and there isn’t a more glaring reason why than the play of the offensive line.

The inability to run the ball or protect the quarterback has made yards and points increasingly difficult to come by for the Spartans, no more so than last season, when MSU ranked as the worst offense in the Big Ten.

As mentioned, there is a good deal of returning experience in the unit, and Horst is expected to make an immediate push for a starting job at tackle.

But until Michigan State can get the type of offensive line play it had become accustomed to during the prime of Dantonio’s run, it won’t matter much who the quarterback or running backs are this season.

Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III could be the No. 1 running back for Michigan State this season.
Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III could be the No. 1 running back for Michigan State this season. (Getty Images)

Early outlook on Michigan State vs. Nebraska

Couch: “Michigan State’s schedule is brutal. They only have six home games, and they could really be anywhere from a 4-8 to a 9-3 team. For MSU, there’s so much that’s unknown in terms of fit.

“To have 16 eligible transfers, most of which are coming from high-major programs and are seasoned players, it’s just hard to read. I don’t know where Nebraska’s going to be. I don’t think Michigan State’s going to be horrible because even in what was a pretty low point last year, they still beat Northwestern, and they beat Michigan.

“I think they’ll be better than last year. I wish I could have more for you. In almost any other year, I could a lot better answer. Usually, in college football, you don’t get this much turnover that’s going to matter. I would guess that almost all of (the 16 transfers) are in the two-deep.”

Overall 2021 win-loss expectations

Couch: “So everybody always talks about 6-6, and I think that’s kind of the last answer in this sense. If you’re thinking they’re a .500 football team, then probably 5-7, because usually when you say 6-6, that’s based on seven home games.

“I think the expectation should be that they don’t lose stupidly and in dumb ways, that they’re competitive, and that there are signs the program is going to be more competitive. That ought to be the bare minimum expectation.

“There’s a chance that they’re going to be good, and they’re 9-3 or something like that. The thing about this team and their schedule is they’re not going to fluke their way to 9-3. You can have a 9-3 team that’s not that great where you have all the right games at the right times.

“I don’t think any of that is going to happen. If they’re 9-3 or 8-4, they’re going to be a legitimate 9-3 or 8-4. There’s a chance just with the number of incoming players that that’s what they become.

“My guess is they’re fighting for a bowl bid late, and they’ve got some talent that can give you trouble. Offensively, they’ve got playmakers that will allow them to compete sometimes with teams that are better than them. But ultimately, there are going to be some holes that pop up with this team that are going to keep them from being a team that’s at all in contention.”