Michigan State football: Five story lines for Spartans as preseason camp nears

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Everything is headed in the right direction.

Players and coaches are on campus, workouts have begun and footballs are sailing through the air.

Rocky Lombardi is vying to be the Spartans' starting quarterback in what appears to be a wide-open competition.

Whether any of that continues — by the time preseason camp is officially set to begin in early August or by September when the regular season, albeit a shortened one, is supposed to begin — is anybody’s guess.

For now, though, Mel Tucker and his staff are at least getting a few hours a week with their team, hours the first-year coach and his assistants missed out on when spring practice as wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And if camp commences in roughly two weeks, the real work will begin.

And while things could change dramatically — there’s still no definitive schedule since the Big Ten revealed it would play only conference games — the Spartans continue the process of preparing for another season.

When that does happen, there will be plenty of story lines to follow for a team that has posted back-to-back 7-6 seasons and hasn’t truly been in the hunt for the Big Ten East title since 2017. From quarterback to cornerback, Michigan State has questions to be answered, and it will all be happening with a coaching staff that features plenty of new faces, including a completely new group on the offensive side of the ball.

Regardless of when the next season kicks off, here are some of the key story lines to follow as the Spartans head into the 2020 season.

Replacing Lewerke

The most obvious hole to fill is at quarterback. After three years as a starter, Brian Lewerke closed his career with a win in the Pinstripe Bowl, throwing for 320 yards and surpassing Connor Cook with the most total yards in program history at 9,548. However, Lewerke never really capitalized following a promising sophomore season, battling arm injuries as a junior and suffering with a stagnant offense as a senior.

Who steps in is anyone’s guess at this point. Rising junior Rocky Lombardi is the only quarterback on the roster with any real experience but hasn’t exactly lit things up in his three starts and 16 appearances. It appears to have left the door open for sophomore Theo Day, who saw only a handful of snaps last season, and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Both should get every opportunity to win the starting job while incoming freshman Noah Kim shouldn’t be ruled out considering the fact the race appears to be wide open.

Receivers should catch on

Whoever does win the quarterback job will have his share of weapons, but many of those on the outside still have shown mostly flashes. With veteran receivers Cody White and Darrell Stewart off to the NFL, playing time is up for grabs, and those vying for that time have the makings of a fairly talented group.

Leading the way is Jalen Nailor, who played in just four games last season because of injury and remains a sophomore in terms of eligibility. He’s an electric slot receiver with game-breaking speed that has yet to make it through a full season. However, if he remains healthy, he could be a difference maker. Two other intriguing potential starters include sophomores Tre Mosley and Jayden Reed. Mosley played in the final six games last season, catching 21 passes for 216 yards, including eight grabs in the win over Maryland. Reed is eligible after sitting out a transfer year after coming over from Western Michigan, where he was a freshman All-American.

Also, expect senior Laress Nelson and junior C.J. Hayes to be in the rotation, while it’s worth keeping an eye on redshirt freshmen Tre’Von Morgan and Cade McDonald. Morgan missed all of last season with an injury while McDonald, a walk-on, was high school teammates with Thorne and Reed.

Young trio could anchor O-line

The Spartans have had their struggles along the offensive line ever since reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015. Since then, injuries and inconsistency have plagued the offense, but some young talent began to show itself last season and it could be a sign of brighter days ahead. J.D. Duplain stood out, starting five of 10 games at left guard as a true freshman while Nick Samac, also a true freshman, started four of seven games at center. Add in left tackle Devontae Dobbs, who played in four games and enters 2020 as a redshirt freshman, and the Spartans have a solid young core up front.

Who fills in around the young trio is still up for grabs, but expect Kevin Jarvis to have a big role. After playing guard his first two seasons, Jarvis moved to left tackle last year, but missed all but three games because of injury, allowing him to take a redshirt season. He has versatility, which helps the rotation, as well as plenty of experience. Senior right guard Jordan Reid has been as solid as anyone up front while depth will likely come from a large group of veterans, led by fifth-year seniors Matt Allen and Luke Campbell as well as redshirt juniors AJ Arcuri, Blake Bueter and Matt Carrick.

Antjuan Simmons

Opportunity knocks on defense

Even through some of the ups and downs the Spartans endured over the last few years, the defense remained among the best in the nation. That run ended last season and entering 2020, only a handful of starters are back, led by defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, linebacker Antjuan Simmons and safety Xavier Henderson. That leaves plenty of opportunity for players to step in and become significant contributors.

Young players to keep an eye on include redshirt freshman Michael Fletcher at defensive end and a host of linebackers led by sophomores Chase Kline and Jeslord Boateng, junior Noah Harvey and redshirt freshman Marcel Lewis. In the back end, the battle at corner could be fascinating with sophomore Julian Barnett moving over from offense to battle with the likes of sophomore Kalon Gervin, junior Shakur Brown as well as senior Dominique Long, who has shifted over from safety. It’s also worth watching true freshman Angelo Grose while seeing if third-year sophomores Davion Williams and Chris Jackson can get on the field.

Safety is almost as tightly contested with Henderson a potential star joined by senior Tre Person, who also can play cornerback. Sophomore Michael Dowell and redshirt freshman Tate Hallock will be in the mix, as should incoming freshman Darius Snow.

Tucker takes over

As compelling as some of the position battles likely will be, the overall transition of the program from Mark Dantonio to Tucker will draw the most attention. Dantonio took Michigan State to new levels, winning three Big Ten titles, getting the Spartans back to the Rose Bowl and making a playoff appearance. Even after some disappointments over the past few years, those are tough shoes to fill for Tucker, a coach with one season under his belt running a program. He’s done well to keep some continuity, retaining defensive assistants Mike Tressel and Ron Burton, as well as bringing back Harlon Barnett, but there are plenty of new faces.

With those new faces likely comes a new style and a different identity. Dantonio was defense first, and it should be noted that Tucker’s career has been mostly spent on defense. But plenty of attention will be placed on the offense where big changes were needed. Ultimately, Tucker, like any coach, is judged on wins and losses. It’s hard to predict those things early in his first preseason camp, but the steps toward keeping Michigan State in the Big Ten hunt on a regular basis are beginning now. Time will tell if it’s all moving the right direction.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau