Injuries take toll on Michigan State's fleet of wide receivers
East Lansing — It’s been a difficult season for Terrence Samuel.
Back in August, the Michigan State wide receivers coach had a room full of weapons, a group as talented as any in the Big Ten and one that would surely help lead the Spartans’ offense to big things in 2018.
But, as the Spartans have learned this season, not everything goes as expected. And in football, that often means injuries can quickly derail any grand plans.
That’s been the case for Michigan State this season, but it’s been especially true for the wide receivers.
Three games into the season, junior Darrell Stewart Jr. suffered an ankle injury that has lingered and forced him to miss two games while the next week, sophomore Cody White broke his hand and missed the next four games. And just as those two were close to healthy, senior Felton Davis ruptured his Achilles against Michigan.
“No. No way,” Samuel said when asked about the number of injuries. “I’ve never had a season like this where I’ve had this many injuries.”
While losing three starters is bad enough, nearly the entire receiving group has been affected, as well. Sophomore Cam Chambers has been playing with a broken thumb, while fifth-year senior Brandon Sowards has been banged up. Sophomore Laress Nelson, freshman Jalen Nailor and redshirt freshman C.J. Hayes have also missed time for the Spartans (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten).
It’s gotten so bad at times that Samuel, a former receiver at Purdue, has joked about joining the scout team to get through a practice.
“You’ve gotta be ready and whatever the team needs,” Samuel said with a laugh. “If I gotta suit up, I’ll suit up.”
Of course, it hasn’t been that bad, and Samuel prefers to focus on the positives that have come from the situation.
“I always said, my deal is to make sure that (offensive coordinator Dave) Warner doesn’t notice those guys out there,” Samuel said. “That’s my job, to make sure that the next guy that goes in makes plays. It could be my best job, but it could be my worst job.
“Right now, I think the guys are doing OK. They’re stepping up and they’re making plays. We’re getting plays made from guys probably that you guys might not have expected. It’s really more kudos to those guys and the way they work.”
While a host of players have caught passes this season — cornerback and former receiver Justin Layne, included — the Spartans have slowly started to get back to what many expected before the season, the exception being the loss of Davis for the year.
Much of that is thanks to the steady play in recent weeks of Stewart and the return of White, who had two catches against Maryland before catching eight passes for 115 yards last week against Ohio State.
“I sleep better at night,” Samuel said of White’s return. “It’s good to see him back. It’s good to see him playing aggressive. Like I said, he helps the team, ain’t no question. He helps the offense move the ball.”
White was Michigan State’s leading receiver before suffering the broken left hand in the victory over Central Michigan. His 30 catches are just one behind Davis and two ahead of Stewart heading into Saturday’s noon kickoff at Nebraska.
“It felt good to be back out there, being 100 percent,” White said. “But we know we need to get better as an offense. Even though I had 100 yards, I’ve still got to do more to get the job done.”
Nelson and Hayes were back last week, though Nailor did not play after seeing action in the previous three games. Stewart also missed the second half as the offense continues to struggle.
But, assuming Stewart’s injury doesn’t keep him out this week, Samuel is confident in how he can use his guys against the Cornhuskers.
“(Stewart) knowing the offense, that really makes it easy and now it just makes it to where you can move him around to where you can get some matchups,” Samuel said. “He and Cody, they can do all of those things. You really feel comfortable moving all those guys around. Brandon Sowards can make adjustments in a heartbeat, so can Cam. I’ve got a lot of guys that know what to do, it’s just trying to find the right matchups sometimes.”