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John Niyo and Angelique Chengelis are joined by Chris Howard and Matt Charboneau to talk about Michigan's issues and Michigan State's 6-1 season.

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East Lansing — While Michigan State’s offense is busy trying to kick-start its production, the same can be said for the special teams — specifically the punt returns.

It’s been nearly six years since the Spartans returned a punt for a touchdown, dating to Nov. 26, 2011, when Keyshawn Martin took one back 57 yards for a score against Northwestern. The teams meet again Saturday in Evanston, Ill.

In an effort to find someone with that sort of explosiveness, Michigan State has been running plenty of guys out there as four different players have returned punts this season. None have stood out as the Spartans rank 12th in the Big Ten with an average return of 3.8 yards.

Sophomore receiver Darrell Stewart started the season returning punts, but in an effort to lighten his load, coach Mark Dantonio turned to freshman Laress Nelson. In the game at Minnesota, it was freshman Connor Heyward’s turn and last week against Indiana, freshman Cody White took over with Nelson joining him on two of the Hoosiers’ kicks

“We’re on our fourth guy,” Dantonio said. “We tried to take something off of Darrell’s plate a little bit because he was being used in all these different areas. So, we went with the younger guy. We dropped one in the Michigan game — decision-making, not ability — and caught one inside the 10 versus Minnesota. And then we did the same thing again this past week.

“So, you lose yourself out on the field. Maybe when the ball is punted, your concentration is so good. But they all catch the ball very, very well and there are three freshmen back there of the four. And they have a lot of confidence in themselves. I thought Cody did a nice job back there with the exception of the one where he caught it on the 5.”

That’s what Dantonio was referencing when he mentioned catching one inside the 10 and doing it again a week later. Heyward caught a punt at the 5-yard line at Minnesota and White did it last week in the win over Indiana when the choice in that situation should be to let the ball go into the end zone.

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Heyward still is returning kicks, but White and Nelson continue to learn on the fly.

“Me and Laress have been returning the whole year and it’s just been a new experience for us,” White said. “We’ve got some learning things to do and we just learn every week.”

They haven’t been learning in the greatest conditions, either. While it was a nice day in East Lansing last week, the previous two games were miserable as wind and rain dominated games at Michigan and at Minnesota.

That could have led to a ball going through Nelson’s hands at Michigan and the suspect decision-making at Minnesota.

Regardless, White is focusing on providing the Spartans with some explosiveness.

“It’s more of a development thing with us learning every week and trying to get better with punt returning and kick returning,” White said. “We do have Connor Heyward — a freshman too — as well doing kick return, so it’s just a development thing for us.”

And Dantonio is remaining patient with his young group.

“We just keep working,” Dantonio said. “But again, we’re going to be young. Every team is going to be young at some point in some position. So, next year we’ll look at it like we have experienced punt returners. But right now you just sort of say, ‘OK, are you feeling good about this? Yeah? Good, Coach, so let’s go.’”

JUST FOR KICKS

As important as the punt returning is, kicking the ball away is almost as important.

Junior Jake Hartbarger has punted well this season, averaging 42.4 yards a punt while downing 17 inside the 20-yard line. However, he also has eight touchbacks this season, three more than the next closest in the Big Ten.

“If there’s one thing, if we can just keep the ball out of the end zone,” said co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who is in charge of the punt team. “Too many dang touchbacks on the punt unit, so that’s a point of emphasis, but he’s doing a good job.”

Last week against Indiana, Hartbarger had a career-long 62-yard punt and had one downed inside the 1 but did have one touchback.

“He’s to the point where he’s not rattled anymore as a young player going out there and having to punt,” Dantonio said. “He’s extremely confident in his abilities and he’s got a big leg. … We need to be better in terms of keeping the ball out of the end zone. Because he’s done that a couple times we had opportunities.”

MICHIGAN STATE AT NORTHWESTERN

Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Records: Michigan State 6-1, 4-0 Big Ten; Northwestern 4-3, 2-2

Line: Michigan State by 2

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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