Michigan State football weighs position changes, though 'right now it’s all theory'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing -- Spring practice can often be a time for experimentation, and even though there are no players on the field, Mel Tucker and his staff will have plenty of time to tinker with Michigan State’s roster over the next few weeks.

Clearly, it would be easier if all activities hadn’t been shut down because of the spread of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean pieces aren’t being shuffled and potential lineups being considered. It’s all speculation at this point as the first-year coach and his staff are still in the process of getting to know the players on the roster and where everyone fits, but some shifts seem likely.

Julian Barnett

“Sure, we talked about a little bit where the pegs are going to fit in,” defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said. “We’ve kind of talked about it, but right now it’s all theory.”

Most everything is in theory now for the Spartans. They’re supposed to be about halfway through spring practice. However, like most teams, they’re being forced to meet virtually while the players do their best to work out on their own at home.

Advancing some theories on position changes is at least happening at this point, and one of the most intriguing is what will be the plan for Julian Barnett. As a freshman, Barnett played the entire season at wide receiver. However, he was recruited as one of the top cornerbacks in the nation out of Belleville and even worked at that position during preseason camp last August.

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Before Mark Dantonio stepped down, he talked about Barnett potentially playing both sides of the ball.

“Julian has been in our room a little bit,” Hazelton said, “and he might be playing some corner and doing some stuff to get trained for that way, so we’ll have to see.”

Barnett ended up at wide receiver last season based out of need as depth was thin, an issue that continued all season as injuries took their toll on that group. However, the Spartans could be looking for help at corner this season. At the very least, the competition will be wide open.

Where Barnett fits in will likely not be decided until preseason camp. He played in all 13 games last season and had 13 receptions for 182 yards but could be ready for a big jump on either side of the ball.

“He’s a very talented athlete and so my approach on that is that’s going to really probably come from Coach Tucker,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “But where does he make our team better? At the end of the day, based on our needs, based on our evaluations, that’s where I think we plug Julian in. I could see that possibly being on either side of the ball because of his skill set. It is really exciting and the more marketable guys can be, that helps us be better as a team.

“I’m excited about his future, but right now, it’s kind of a little bit challenging just because I don’t know where everything else is at, but I know definitely with Coach Tucker we’ll plug him in where we the best think he can help us as a team.”

There doesn’t seem to be any uncertainty at this point when it comes to Connor Heyward.

“Right now my intent is Connor to be a running back unless something would tell me different at a later date,” Johnson said. “But certainly going into this I anticipate him … we’re glad that he’s back and anticipate him to be a running back.”

Heyward began last season as Michigan State’s starting running back but soon gave way to Elijah Collins. After four games, Heyward opted to enter the transfer portal but after Tucker was hired in February, Heyward opted to return to Michigan State.

Connor Heyward

Versatility is what got him on the field as a freshman and it could be useful now as Heyward would enter this season still as a junior after appearing in only four games last season. He’s carried the ball 145 times for 618 yards with five touchdowns in his career while catching 43 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns.

“I like the running back position,” Johnson said. “Man, what I’ve been able to see of those guys -- very talented group.”

Another player being talked about his Adam Berghorst. He began his freshman year last season as a defensive end but shifted during the season to tight end and appeared in four games. By the final few weeks, he was listed on the depth chart at both spots.

“I know that there’s a couple guys who did that were kind of flipping back and forth,” Hazelton said. “It sounds like he was going to stay with the offense.”

Berghorst is an interesting prospect. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, he’s got the size and strength to excel at both positions while attempting to a two-sport athlete. After being drafted last summer in the 14th round of the MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers, Berghorst still came to Michigan State. This spring, he had a 1.17 earned run average over 15 1/3 innings for the MSU baseball team.

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Whatever position shifts the coaches have in mind, there won’t be any real moves until the team can get back on the field.

“That’s going to be somewhat of a feel thing,” Hazelton said. “You might think, ‘Hey, this guy might be a defensive end and really he’s a defensive tackle.’ Or maybe there’s a corner that can play nickel or a safety might be a free or strong (safety), or whatever the case is. Some of those things are going to have to happen as we get onto the field because with some guys, you might think, ‘Hey, he’d really fit this slot,’ and then as you watch him play you might say, ‘Wow, he might be really good at this one instead.’

“So, right now as we’re starting to teach, we’re trying to do it in a way that all these guys can do these different skills, and let’s teach the skills and terminology and get everybody to understand what they’re doing and then how those skill sets fit into each defense. So if that does happen once we hit fall camp, guys have the ability to switch a little bit and change and it’s not too much of a shock to them if they end up playing something else.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau