Ross Els isn’t trying to be coy.
When he says he has no idea what players might fill various roles this season for Michigan State, he’s not making it up.
The Spartans special teams coordinator and linebackers coach is like most of the rest of Mel Tucker’s staff, trying to figure out which players fit where without the benefit of having any face-to-face time with those players and not being able to get on the field.
“I've seen the linebackers run,” Els said during a conference call on Thursday. “I haven't seen a kicker kick, a punter punt or a wideout or running back. Again, the one day I saw them work out I wouldn't have a clue who they were.”
Such is life these days as teams all over the country sit out, something made even more difficult at Michigan State as a new staff takes over.
But Els is sure of one thing, and it’s a comforting thought – when the Spartans do get back on the field they’ll have senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons. That, alone, is a heck of a place to start.
“Obviously, with Antjuan coming back, he’s the smartest guy in the room and runs the best,” Els said. “I do know that. A tremendous leader and we’re glad to have him back. He was the leading tackler, so that's obviously a good thing.”
Having Simmons to lean on will be critical for Els and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. When Joe Bachie was suspended for the final five games last season, Simmons was forced to move around, starting a pair of games at middle linebacker while starting the other 11 on the outside.
His versatility was evident before that moment but became critical down the stretch. Simmons finished with a team-best 90 tackles while recording 15 tackles for loss, 3 1/2 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
While Els isn’t revealing any schemes at this point, it’s a safe bet that Simmons is going to be a big part of the defensive game plan, regardless off where he lines up.
“Let's just put it this way, Antjuan can (play) wherever we want to play him,” Els said. “Antjuan can play in the box, he can play outside, he can rush the passer, he can cover. He's a special individual, not just because he can move and he's tough, but he’s also very intelligent. He’s very intelligent and a great leader.
“So there's gonna be a lot of expectations on him. There already is and he's handling it well. But we'll see when we get to Northwestern exactly where he's going to line up.”
Simmons isn’t making any demands as to where he plays. He made that clear last week when talking to reporters.
“I just play linebacker,” Simmons said. “That's it. So as of right now I'm a linebacker and I'm pretty sure that that's how it will stay unless they tell me something different. But I wouldn't be offended or anything like that. Football is football and I just want to play.”
There’s no doubt Simmons will be doing that. Ever since Tucker was hired in February to replace Mark Dantonio, Simmons has been the face of the Spartans. He spoke at Tucker’s introductory press conference and seems destined to be a captain whenever football resumes. When it does, Simmons will be leading a group light on experience.
Junior Noah Harvey played in all 13 games last season but started the final five after Bachie’s suspension. He represents the most extensive experience outside of Simmons in the entire linebacking corps. Chase Kline and Jeslord Boateng, both entering their sophomore seasons, played last season but their snaps were limited. Others to watch include Marcel Lewis, who played in three games last season as a true freshman, and Luke Fulton, who redshirted in 2019.
Add in a handful of incoming freshmen, including early enrollees Cal Haladay and Devin Hightower, and Els is eager to see what he has to work with.
“Noah Harvey has had some good reps and was in a lot of plays last year,” Els said. “So I'm excited to see what Noah can do. And then you got a couple other guys who were sprinkled in there, Jeslord Boateng, Chase Kline, and then a whole bunch of other dudes who haven't played yet.
“So it's gonna be interesting, but I think everybody in the country is kind of in that boat. The maybe special situation for us, obviously, is that a few of us on the defensive side of the ball were not here previously. So we don't know a lot about these kids as far as playing ability.”
That’s where Els will not only lean on Simmons, but the other coaches, as well.
Safeties coach Mike Tressel has coached the linebackers at Michigan State in some capacity each of the 13 years he’s been on staff while defensive line coach Ron Burton has been with the Spartans since 2013. Add in the return of defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett and Els has plenty of help.
“Those guys are outstanding, and they're such team players,” Els said. “Those guys are fantastic. From a personnel standpoint, from a scheme standpoint, just advice about these guys. I think Tuck did a really good job of getting a mix of guys that he knew, guys that he wanted and guys that were already here. I know this, in our defensive meetings and our special teams meetings, they've been great. All of them have been great and I really enjoy the staff.”