Michigan State mailbag: Replacing Connor Heyward now, replacing Mark Dantonio eventually

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

While basketball is getting rolling, the focus in the Michigan State mailbag remains on the football season.

And there’s plenty to talk about there, as the Spartans head to Ohio State this week and deal with losing a couple of players to the transfer portal. We dig into what the moves mean for the depth chart, while also mixing in some hoops and how Tom Izzo will juggle his rotation.

Michigan State running back La'Darius Jefferson appears to already be filling in the third-down role vacated by Connor Heyward, who announced his plans to transfer this week.

Question. Who is the backup RB now — Jefferson or Williams? — @SpartyH

Answer. It will depend on the situation. I’d expect La’Darius Jefferson to assume the third-down role that Connor Heyward had been playing after the first week of the season. He did so last week against Indiana and has improved as a blocker and as a receiver out of the backfield. That said, Elijah Collins has proven adept at catching the ball, as well, so as his pass protection continues to improve, there might be more third-down options for the redshirt freshman. Outside of the third-down situations, it looks like Anthony Williams is the next option. He hasn’t gotten a lot of work yet, but he’s been the next option on first and second down for the last couple of weeks, so that should continue.

Q. Once Collins became the starter I thought this might happen, so fast forward; what if Theo Day wins the job over Rocky Lombardi next season? Should we be concerned MSU might have only a true freshman backup? — @pfnnewmedia

A. To be clear, if we’re fast-forwarding to next year, Payton Thorne would be a redshirt freshman, so there likely wouldn’t be a true freshman move into that No. 2 spot. There’s always a concern when the backup quarterback is light on experience, but at the college level that’s almost always the case. It’s not often it plays out like it has this season at Indiana where a guy like Peyton Ramsey started for the better part of two seasons then lost his starting job. Usually the No. 2 is a guy who’s seen spot duty in blowout games or maybe a little more time because of an injury.

As for the notion of Day beating out Lombardi for the starting spot next season, I’m not about to make any predictions at this point, but I’m certain it will be a legitimate battle for the top spot with Day and Thorne having every opportunity to win the job.

Theo Day

Q. When Coach D retires (I think after this year) do you think the university goes with an inside hire? I’d love to see an innovative offensive coach or an up and comer like Jim Leonhard if they go outside. — @MrOdinga

A. We’ll see if Michigan State is looking to replace Mark Dantonio after this season, but if it is, there will be no shortage of names that will be tossed into the hat. The first question will be how much say Dantonio has in who his successor will be. That said, bringing up a name like Leonhard, the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, is an interesting one. It’s certainly not the innovative offensive mind you mentioned, but that’s not the reason I don’t think it will happen. Let’s compare the fact Leonhard is in his fourth season as a coach and third as DC to a guy that’s excelling at Michigan State now — Mike Tressel. If Michigan State opts for a guy who hasn’t been a head coach, I can’t see too many guys getting the nod over Tressel.

Q. Scarier thought: MSU offense vs. 3 of top 4 scoring defenses next three games, or Indiana providing them a blueprint to beat our, now 14th-ranked, scoring defense? —  @RickDarnell8

A. I’ll say the offense trying to score consistently over the next few weeks is the greater challenge for Michigan State. I’m just playing the odds here, and the idea that there suddenly some sort of kryptonite for the Spartans’ defense and every team will simply throw 4-yard passes and make guys miss tackles is a bit of a stretch for me. Teams have tried to attack Michigan State this way plenty over the years and, quite frankly, the Spartans didn’t play very well. There were a lot of missed tackles, some miscommunication in the secondary and some adjustments that came a bit too slow. But I’m betting that gets figured out. At least, I’m betting that’s more likely than the offense scoring 30 points a game over the next few weeks. The last two weeks have shown the offense is headed in the right direction and it is building some confidence, but I still wonder if the Spartans will be good enough up front to protect Brian Lewerke while also being able to have some sort of a running game.

Q. Are we going to see more of Julian Barnett soon? I saw him back on at least one kickoff last week but is he going to get more involved in the offense? Seems like we need his playmaking ability. — @daveholz

A. He’s played in every game, but trying to guess when we might see Barnett on a more regular basis is difficult. I think he has clearly shown the ability to make big plays, but you can’t completely get away from the fact he’ll need to understand the offense and eliminate some of the miscues. If he shows those things are improving, you’ll see him out there more. That said, yes, the Spartans should absolutely take advantage of his playmaking ability.

Q. When is AJ Arcuri coming back? Any time soon? — @SpartyH

A. Good question. I think the bigger question is when is Kevin Jarvis coming back? He’s a proven player and would immediately help the offensive line, especially with Blake Bueter now battling an injury. Arcuri has yet to play regularly in his career, so even if he’s healthy, there’s not guarantee he can be consistently effective. Dantonio hinted the offensive line could be getting some guys back soon, so we’ll see. Again, the key would be Jarvis.

Q. Are the recent transfers just a matter of guys not liking their spot on the depth chart/usage or is there some locker room strife going on, ala 2016. — @redwingsfan2003

A. This is not a repeat of 2016 when there was division in the locker room. These moves are pretty straight forward. Both Connor Heyward and Brandon Bouyer-Randle want to play on a more regular basis and right now, they’re simply not in the position to do that with the Spartans.

More: Michigan State running back Connor Heyward enters transfer portal

More:Michigan State linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle enters transfer portal

Q. We all know the team that Tom Izzo has this season. Who is going to be the surprise that may see more minutes than expected? — @RandyCheadle

A. Hmmm. A surprise? It might not be the flashy pick, but as long as he stays healthy, Kyle Ahrens will see plenty of playing time. That, alone, might not be a real shock, either, but his experience and style of play will be invaluable, and if he starts getting a few more shots, he could get close to playing the role Matt McQuaid did last season. Is he gonna score 20-plus in a tournament game? Maybe not, but he’ll be making plays that absolutely matter with games on the line.

Q. Who starts at the 4 against UK in the Champions Classic? Bingham?? Kithier?? Hall?? — @dembeckm

A. So many options, right? And now you see what Izzo is dealing with. It can be looked at as a good position with plenty of different guys, or it can be a negative if someone doesn’t emerge. I think Thomas Kithier will mostly spell Xavier Tillman at the 5, so I wouldn’t expect a ton of him at the 4. Marcus Bingham has made progress, so he should get a shot, and MSU could always go small and use Aaron Henry or Gabe Brown there some, too. Something tells me, though, that as time goes by, you might see Malik Hall start to really flourish in that spot.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau