There’s no telling when college football teams might start getting back on the field, but when they do, there will be plenty of work to be done.
That’s especially true at Michigan State, where first-year coach Mel Tucker and his staff have had virtually no time on the field with their team as things were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic just as spring practice was set to get rolling.
But that’s just part of the challenge the new staff is facing. When the Spartans are back on the field, the position battles will be fierce as the 2020 season – whatever that looks like – looms.
There aren’t many positions set at this point outside of running back, where sophomore Elijah Collins is the clear starter, and perhaps kicker as Matt Coghlin looks to bounce back from an inconsistent junior season. Some spots aren’t as hotly contested. There’s plenty of talent at wide receiver with a handful of players expected to figure prominently in the rotation, while the offensive line depth chart will be worth paying attention to as a group of young linemen look to make a big jump this season.
The defensive tackle rotation seems clear, too, as fifth-year senior Naquan Jones and sophomore Jacob Slade move into starting roles with sophomore Dashaun Mallory and redshirt freshman Jalen Hunt expected to join the rotation.
Most other spots are up for grabs. Here’s a look at the key position battles.
The most obvious encounter and the one that will draw most of the attention is under center, not a surprise after three-year starter Brian Lewerke departed for the NFL. Fourth-year junior Rocky Lombardi has the clear advantage in experience, appearing in 16 career games and starting three back in 2018 when Lewerke was battling a shoulder injury. However, though Lombardi went 2-1 as a starter, he’s never truly taken off in his appearances, completing 42.8 percent of his passes while throwing three touchdown passes and five interceptions. It’s left the door open for someone else to seize the moment.
Third-year sophomore Theo Day appeared in two games last season and was pulled in the second half against Penn State despite completing a pair of passes to pick up a first down. The wild card in the race is redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. He didn’t play last season but traveled more than once and drew rave reviews running the scout team. The uncertain start to the season will like leave incoming freshmen Noah Kim too far behind to join the competition this year.
Fifth-year senior Jacub Panasiuk is the one obvious starter in this group, but finding the other starter to replace Kenny Willekes while determining who provides depth at the spot is a little tougher. Panasiuk will be counted on to provide plenty of pressure on the quarterback as he has started 23 straight games and has 18.5 career sacks. Fifth-year senior Drew Beesley is expected to get his share of snaps while junior Jack Camper, who has battled his share of injuries, and redshirt freshman Michael Fletcher, a highly touted recruit, are expected to jump into the mix, as well.
Some wild cards in the battle would be sophomore Adam Berghorst, who is playing tight end but began last season at defensive end, as well as sophomore Zach Slade, who missed last season with an injury, and fourth-year junior DeAri Todd. The Spartans also signed five defensive ends in the 2020 recruiting class brought in by former coach Mark Dantonio.
There’s one sure thing in Michigan State’s linebacking corps – senior Antjuan Simmons will be the leader of the pack. An outside backer by trade, Simmons showed last season he can play inside, but expect him to remain on the outside under the new coaching regime. Defensive alignments will likely shift more often this season, meaning roles could be changing, but junior Noah Harvey, as well as sophomores Jeslord Boateng and Chase Kline, will be first in line to fill some of those roles.
Players to watch include redshirt freshman Marcel Lewis, who appeared in three games last season, as well as redshirt freshmen Luke Fulton and Charles Willekes, a walk-on who played in one game in 2019. Also, incoming freshmen Cal Haladay and Devin Hightower enrolled early, giving them at least a brief taste of college life, something that could pay off when they get back on the field.
Suddenly, the Spartans are thin at this position as junior Shakur Brown offers the most experience of the group, though he missed six games last season because of injury. He has started five times in his career, has a pair of interceptions and likely has the inside track to start this season. From there, it’s a toss-up. Julian Barnett, one of the top cornerback recruits in the nation two years ago, flips back over after playing wide receiver last season as a freshman and brings all sorts of talent to the position. But he’ll be pushed, namely by sophomore Kalon Gervin, who played in 10 games last year while earning a start against Ohio State. Senior Dominique Long, who has played mostly safety, is also working at cornerback.
The Spartans are still waiting on sophomores Davion Williams and Chris Jackson to emerge with Williams a consistent contributor on special teams. Incoming freshman Angelo Grose enrolled early and was already making a name for himself when things were shut down.
The Spartans will be carried a safety by junior Xavier Henderson, who started all 13 games last season, finishing second on the team in tackles with 83 while intercepting two passes and breaking up five. He’ll be joined by senior Tre Person, who played his first two seasons at cornerback before shifting to safety last season.
Person will be pushed, though, by a handful of young players itching to get on the field. Sophomore Michael Dowell as well as redshirt freshman Tate Hallock and junior Emmanuel Flowers were singled out by safeties coach Mike Tressel, but incoming freshman Darius Snow should also factor in after enrolling early and standing out during his short time on campus.