Michigan State mailbag: Heyward's role, recruiting wins, point guard outlook

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s been a while since we’ve had a Michigan State mailbag and it’s clear we needed to check the inbox considering there were plenty of questions surrounding the Spartans.

These are uncertain times, but there’s been plenty of buzz surrounding football coach Mel Tucker and the job his staff has done landing 10 commitments already for the 2021 class, many of whom have not even visited campus. We also break down realistic expectations for this season and even take a guess whether there will be a season.

Basketball is never not a topic, either, and there’s plenty to wonder about from the status of those in the NBA Draft and where MSU might turn in the backcourt next season.

Q. Matt, do you think there will be a football season? -- @jeffgibbons5

A. Yes. That’s the simple answer. Athletic department budgets would be in big trouble without revenue from football, which leads to the tougher issue of when the season might take place and how it will be set up. There are plenty of proposals being floated around, but I’d be shocked if there are games at the end of August/start of September. I’d suspect the season to be delayed to some extent or even see the number of games cut down, but I do expect there to be college football.

Q. What is a realistic expectation for a record this year? With Coach D’s odd-times departure and the pandemic, how many years does he get to rebuild before the hot seat? What is MSU’s new ceiling? Do we ever do what we did again under Mark? -- @matthewdyer97

A. I’d say getting six or seven wins and making a bowl game is reasonable. Whether the Spartans do so depends on a few factors, namely figuring out the quarterback spot, but there’s still enough there to be a .500 team. I’m not sure the timing of Dantonio’s departure affects this season as much as it could have recruiting, but it seems Tucker and his staff are doing just fine to this point. It’s hard to put the expectation of regularly winning the Big Ten and fighting for a playoff spot on this staff. I think winning the conference should be the goal and being in the hunt regularly is reasonable, but let’s not forget the 2013-15 run was the best in program history. Can they get there? Sure. Will they? That’s harder to say.

Connor Heyward

Q. Since I can't imagine revisiting (Connor) Heyward at RB, what position do you anticipate he'll occupy? -- @spartymcj3

A. Don’t count him out completely as a running back. I’m not saying the starter or even a guy that gets a lot of carries, but he has value as a blocker and a pass-catcher coming out of the backfield. I think he’ll be in a position much like he was as a freshman when he moved around the offense, sometimes playing in the slot as a receiver and as a running back.

More: Xavier Henderson will lead the way, but youngsters add intrigue to Michigan State secondary

Q. Are there any realistic NFL draftees on the 2020 team? -- @spartymcj3

A. I would imagine you have a handful, but much like this year, most will be likely to go late in the draft. Included in that list would be linebacker Antjuan Simmons and defensive tackle Naquan Jones. I’d also keep an eye on defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, tight end Matt Dotson, offensive tackle Jordan Reid and offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis, assuming he doesn’t come back for another year after missing most of 2019 with an injury.

Q. Will MSU land any 4-star recruits this year? -- @SpartyH

A. It already has if you follow the rankings at Rivals. Cornerback Charles Brantley of Venice, Fla., draws four stars from that service while checking in as a three-star in the composite rankings at 247Sports. Expect some of the rankings to change, too, as players are reevaluated through their senior seasons.

Q. Coach Mel clearly has a different strategy for recruiting than the previous staff. What's your early assessment of his approach and this recruiting class so far? -- @kstotts5150

A. I’m not sure how different the approach is. Assistants still have regions of the country they’re responsible for and they’ll recruit their position group, as well. They’ve been forced to used social media much more, and I’m not sure how that would have looked had Dantonio stuck around through the current climate. I think it’s clear Tucker is more willing to interact with both fans and recruits, and that seems to be paying off early in the process by building some momentum. The key will be carrying that through. Let’s see how the first class shakes out and if the buzz continues for Tucker.

More: Lawyers for Curtis Blackwell ask court to unseal Mark Dantonio deposition

Q. If (Jamari) Buddin commits, how big of a domino effect will it have? -- @MeltuckerGod

A. I’m not sure of the domino effect but it would be the surest sign yet that Mel Tucker is off to a rousing start. It would be big enough to gain a commitment from one of the top linebacker prospects in the country, but to beat out Michigan and Penn State for a top in-state recruit would be huge.

Q. Random, I know, but I saw this and it got me thinking. Was (Legends and Leaders) a better balance for the conference? Rutgers and Maryland are still (eh) so split them and tack them on. -- @Aurelius291

A. As you might recall, the goal back in 2011 when the Big Ten created those divisions was historical competitive balance. At first glance, that breakdown looks a little bit better than the current East/West setup because it moves Michigan State and Michigan out of the same division as Ohio State and Penn State. However, it’s not perfect because Wisconsin was with OSU and PSU in the Leaders Division. Those three teams account for 12 appearances in the Big Ten title game with six for the Badgers and five for the Buckeyes. Over in the Legends, there are only six championship game appearances with three for MSU and one each for Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern.

Julian Barnett

Q. What's the chances “Gruff Sparty” helmet makes the field? I watched Julian Barnett at Belleville and believe he will be an NFL draft pick as a corner. Do you agree? Finally, am I wrong to wonder why the Lady Spartans aren't more of a factor on the national level? -- @pfnnewmedia

A. It’s been a while since we’ve had a mailbag so we might as well answer a three-parter. I’m not sure I’d rule anything out from Mel Tucker when it comes to uniforms and the game-day experience. Michigan State has always been willing to change up the uniforms and Tucker has stated clearly that he’d like to freshen up the gameday experience, so “Gruff Sparty” might just make an appearance.

Regarding Barnett, it’s not a stretch to think he could be outstanding as a cornerback. He was rated the best corner in the state and No. 8 in the nation by 247Sports coming out of Belleville. But MSU needed help on offense, something he was surely capable of as Rivals had Barnett the No. 10 athlete in the nation. So, yes, I agree he could become the next MSU corner to move on to the NFL.

As for the women, I assume we’re talking basketball. They’ve been a fairly consistent NCAA Tournament team, earning a bid in nine of Suzy Merchant’s first 12 seasons. They haven’t been able to make deep runs like they did in 2005 under Joanne P. McCallie, but it’s not like they’re an also-ran. Good question, and I’d like to say I’ve done a deep dive on the state of women’s basketball, but I haven’t. I can say the MSU women have had a heavy dose of bad luck in the injury department over the course of the last handful of years, and that has been a big factor.

Q. How are the 13 scholarships awarded for the basketball team this year? -- @bpmcgant

A. Technically, 12 of the 13 scholarships are spoken for with uncertainty surrounding what could be the 13th with Joshua Langford unsure if he’ll return for a fifth season. He’d be the 13th. The other 12 include senior Xavier Tillman; juniors Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier; sophomores Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble and Joey Hauser; and incoming freshmen Mady Sissoko and AJ Hoggard. Obviously, things change if Tillman and Henry stay in the NBA Draft, leaving two open spots. Langford departing would be three available scholarships, plenty of room for MSU to add another player.

Rocket Watts

Q. Will it really be Rocket, Loyer, and Hoggard at the point? No help expected? -- @StizzleA

Q. Are we adding anyone else at PG? Transfer or late recruit? -- @sull_dawg

A. Combining these questions considering it’s all the same subject. If nothing changes with the current roster, expect a combination of all three to get time at the point. It’s not often a freshman comes in and gets most of the minutes at point guard for Tom Izzo, so while Hoggard will play, it seems hard to see him logging heavy minutes. And with Loyer’s struggles, I’d expect Watts to get plenty of time at the point.

Of course, this could all change with the addition of another guard, something Izzo would love to do. There’s still the possibility Karim Mane doesn’t stay in the NBA Draft and goes to college, but he’s being recruited by a handful of teams, including Michigan State. 

Q. Henry will be back most likely, right? If so, is he the likely backup at PG when the games really matter? Or wouldn’t Izzo ever do that? -- @oleksad

A. My bet right now is that Henry is back, but not as a point guard. There are times he will bring the ball up, but he’s a wing. The Spartans could run more offense through him, but it won’t be at the point.