Michigan State mailbag: Need for speed is glaring

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s a busy time in college sports, and Michigan State fans have a lot to think about.

In this week’s mailbag, football still is on the minds of most as we tackle the Spartans’ lack of team speed, how many young players might start getting a chance and, of course, we have to hit Mark Dantonio’s job status. It wouldn’t be a mailbag without that topic.

Michigan State wide receiver Laress Nelson has just one catch for 25 yards, and one carry for five yards this season.

And over on the hardwood, all of the curiosity surrounded who takes on a larger role with Joshua Langford out until at least January.

Question. Is it just me or is this MSU team slow, I mean REALLY slow? Routine flat passes go for 6-9 yards and slants are automatic against the defense. On offense, without Laress Nelson, nobody seems to get separation. What gives? Oh, and bowl game? Yea or Nay? — @pfnnewmedia

Answer. The answer to this one is simple: You’re right. Michigan State is not fast, and the fastest guy that we’ve seen play with any regularity is Jalen Nailor, who, of course, is out with and injury and has played just once this season. How much of a difference Laress Nelson would make is tough to gauge considering he’s caught one pass this season and ran the ball once for 5 yards. However, if you don’t play a guy, how do you know? Yes, Nelson is undersized, but he does seem to have some breakaway ability. The other player who could fit that bill is freshman Julian Barnett, who has played in all seven games, but seems to be woefully underutilized. Only three catches this season for a player with elite speed seems bizarre at the very least.

As for a bowl game, sure, Michigan State will be in a bowl. Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers are still on the schedule so that’s three likely wins and almost certainly two. What sort of bowl game? That’s a tougher question. A seven-win season could have MSU landing somewhere like the Pinstripe or Gator bowls.

Q. Not to take the low road now that Cam Chambers is gone but why was CJ Hayes playing over Chambers this season? Chambers was definitely better last season, and showed he could play. Was he injured or had he regressed? — @SpartyH

A. It seems clear there was some sort of issue, at least in communication, between Chambers and the coaches. Chambers said in a post on Twitter that he was “begging” for playing time while at one point this season Mark Dantonio talked about Chambers missing some practice time because of his increased workload after enrolling in law school. That would seem to point to the main reason why Chambers appeared in only two games and never had a pass thrown his way.

As for Hayes, I’m still in the wait-and-see stage on him. To this point, —he seems like most of Michigan State’s receivers — a solid player, but hardly a game-breaker. Until the Spartans inject more speed, the receiving corps will continue to be ordinary.

Q. If Dantonio is forced to hire all new offensive coaches, who besides Dan Enos would be on his speed dial? Dan Roushar? What are the chances that Terrance Samuel be reassigned to WR coach? Any others? — @spartanswill86

A. I’d be willing to bet Dan Enos is not on the speed dial. And Roushar? Fans were screaming for him to take a hike for the entirety of his two years as the Spartans’ offensive coordinator. I just can’t see, under the scenario you presented, of anyone being happy with Dantonio simply working back through a bunch of guys who have already been here. Maybe it’s not fair, but it’s the reality. If Dantonio is back, the offensive staff will need a complete overhaul. The only exception I could see is what you suggest, keeping Samuel and moving him back to be in charge of the receivers.

Rocky Lombardi (12) is likely the favorite to be Michigan State's starting quarterback next season, but he'll have to hold off the likes of Theo Day and Payton Thorne.

Q. Is MSU’s starting QB in 2020 on the roster currently?  — @legendjc13

►  A. I’d bet pretty heavily on yes. Now, who that guy is might not be as cut and dried as some might think. Logic would say that Rocky Lombardi would be next in line, but I’m still waiting to be wowed by anything he has done, especially late last season when MSU finally sat down the injured Brian Lewerke. Both Theo Day and Payton Thorne have drawn positive reviews, so I’m betting on a full-fledged quarterback battle beginning in the spring.

The only wild card would be if the Spartans looked at the transfer route, but my guess is they’d only do that if they thought a game-ready quarterback was all they needed to compete for a championship.

►  Q. Are we going to start seeing some of these youngsters play, especially the offensive linemen? Who should we keep an eye on from this point on? — @daveholz

►  A. We might be getting closer to that point. With only five games left in the regular season, things could start opening up for some more of the true freshmen. The offensive line is the place to watch as J.D. Duplain, Devontae Dobbs and Nick Samac are all on the depth chart with Duplain the No. 2 at left guard and Samac in the same spot at center. Dobbs is No. 3 at left tackle, but that’s behind AJ Arcuri, who has been hurt most of the season. Duplain has played in four games, meaning his next action burns the redshirt, while Samac and Dobbs have played two games. All three are the most likely to see increased time.

Also keep an eye on wide receiver Tre Mosley, who has been on the verge of playing all season, as well as running back Brandon Wright, who has yet to play in a game. Two more names that appeared on the depth chart his week include defensive end Michael Fletcher, who battled a foot injury since preseason camp, and defensive end Adam Berghorst, who is also working at tight end.

► Q. Luke Fickell or Alex Grinch for next head coach? — @J_Lawnicki

► A. I’d guess both would be in the mix if Michigan State is indeed looking for a new coach after the season. By the way, does anyone remember that Grinch was the defensive coordinator at Washington State when Michigan State put up 42 on the Cougars in the Holiday Bowl?

► Q. What does MSU do before the Jan 2020 bonus date? — @jpddowney

A. First, figure out if Dantonio intends to coach in 2020, and if he does, start making it clear that changes will be made to his staff. If he plans to move on, it’s probably working behind the scenes to find a new coach while letting him stay on until he can collect the $4.3 million bonus. From there, the move can become official. Those are just two ways this can go, but the one I have a hard time envisioning is the entire staff back as it is now constructed.

Q. Dantonio has never embraced the transfer portal, and it sounds like he just got his username and password. Do you think it’s time for the program to bring in some transfers? — @joebaik

A. Like former Western Michigan wide receiver Jayden Reed? OK, I’m just giving you a hard time. Yeah, it probably is, but I still wouldn’t expect them to suddenly start bringing in a bunch of transfers.

Q. Why doesn't MSU Football have a greater recruiting presence in Florida? Past MSU teams had at least 2-3 players from the Sunshine State every year. Spartan Nation awaits the next Lorenzo White or Hyland Hickson. — @KevinHPark1

A. Well, that’s a fair question considering the last MSU recruit who was a native of Florida was current junior Laress Nelson. But the reality is it’s not like Michigan State isn’t recruiting in the talent-heavy state, it’s just that everyone is. Look at the top 50 guys in the state for 2020 and then see where most have committed. Clearly, Florida, Florida State and Miami show up plenty but so do Clemson, LSU, Alabama, Ohio State … you get the picture. Everyone recruits Florida, so the competition is stiff.

Q. Starting 5 vs Kentucky? — @bsik_12

Kyle Ahrens likely will open the season as Michigan State's starting shooting guard following the injury to Joshua Langford.

A. Here’s who I’m betting it is — Cassius Winston, Kyle Ahrens, Aaron Henry, Thomas Kithier, Xavier Tillman. We’ll dive more into the guard rotation here next, but Winston, Henry and Tillman are locks. I also think Tom Izzo will feel more comfortable, at least initially, with Ahrens and Kithier, though that could change often through the first few weeks. Marcus Bingham is a possibility at the four and I’d bet freshman Malik Hall eventually earns a significant role, but for now I’m betting Kithier, who also will spend some time giving Tillman a break.

Q. Who do YOU feel will fill in the role for Josh Langford until he returns? —@JasperWarner5, @DOM_TorettoMSU, @witkowtoboggan

A. A lot of questions this week are surrounding who takes on a larger role and how the rotation will look, so we’ll acknowledge all the folks who asked and try and cover it in one answer. Long term, it’s clear that Rocket Watts likely will become the main guy at the two. He might not start the opener, but it probably won’t be long before he’s getting the bulk of the minutes as a dynamic scorer and a surprisingly good defender. Kyle Ahrens, of course, helps by not hurting you and can make a few shots. The unknowns include how reliable is Foster Loyer, so that Cassius Winston can play some off the ball and how much does Watts back up Winston? Also, don’t discount the idea of Henry playing some at the two, though it’s not exactly his natural spot.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau