MSU's Mel Tucker not tipping his hand with depth chart ahead of season opener vs. Rutgers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The season opener is just days away, and Michigan State doesn’t have clear starters at more than a few positions.

Or, at least, nobody outside of the football building has a clear idea of who some of those starters might be.

Michigan State kicks off the season – finally – at noon Saturday against Rutgers at Spartan Stadium, and as it gets deep into game preparation this week, first-year coach Mel Tucker is playing it close to the vest.

“We’re gonna play who gives us the best chance to win,” Tucker said. “So, we’ll just have to see how this week unfolds.”

Luke Campbell

At that particular moment, Tucker was talking about the quarterback race between fourth-year junior Rocky Lombardi, sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. But really, he was talking about virtually the entire lineup.

Outside of a handful of near-certain starters — running back Elijah Collins, defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, linebacker Antjuan Simmons and safety Xavier Henderson — there are position battles all over the field.

Quarterback gets most of the attention, but there’s plenty of uncertainty all around, and with no depth chart – Tucker is using what he calls a “rep chart” instead — it’s tough to get much of a gauge on where guys stand.

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The offensive line has at least eight players with starting experience all fighting for playing time and tight end is a combination of young potential with a senior coming back from a significant injury. The wide receiver spot is jam-packed with unproven youth, while there’s plenty of that on defense, as well.

From defensive end, to linebacker to both safety and cornerback, the Spartans will be relying on some new faces, and with no spring game or open practices, Saturday will be the first indication of who fits where.

“We’re trying to develop as many players as we can,” Tucker said. “A coach’s job is to teach, motivate and develop, and every player on our roster is getting coached hard, with attention to detail and a sense of urgency and anticipation of that player, ultimately, being on the field and playing winning football for us.”

No spot is more critical than quarterback. Lombardi has a clear edge when it comes to experience, appearing in 16 games with three starts, those all coming in 2018 for an injured Brian Lewerke. However, outside of a win over Purdue two years ago, Lombardi has failed to lock down the top spot, opening the door for Day and Thorne with true freshman Noah Kim also figuring in, as well.

Day appeared in only two games last season, completing two passes for 12 yards against Penn State as a redshirt freshman while Thorne has yet to see the field, taking a redshirt last season but drawing consistently positive reviews from coaches last season and into preseason camp this year.

Tucker isn’t tipping his hand.

“There’s been fierce competition at so many positions, including quarterback, and so as this week unfolds and a game plan is installed, we’ll make a decision and then we’ll go,” Tucker said. “ Obviously, the guys that we have are very capable. So, we’re very fortunate to have multiple quarterbacks that we feel can get the job done.”

There’s a better than decent chance Saturday’s opener won’t end the race to be the starting quarterback. Two weeks ago, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson said its possible the battle could go into the regular season.

Lombardi, Day and Thorne were all splitting first-team reps, and Tucker likes what he’s seen, just not enough to make a final decision.

“I’ve seen a steady improvement from that group and that’s what you want to see at that position,” Tucker said. “You want to see guys that are team guys, that have leadership ability, that are not afraid to take charge. I’ve seen that in all those guys and I believe that your quarterback has to be your No. 1 competitor on your team, college or pro.”

Offensive line will be critical, too.

Junior Kevin Jarvis figures to start, likely at a tackle spot, while fifth-year senior Matt Allen is steady at center with the ability to play guard. Add in the fact J.D. Duplain and Nick Samac, both sophomores, played well last season at left guard and center, respectively, and things start to get tight. Fifth-year senior Luke Campbell has played every spot but center, fifth-year senior AJ Arcuri was good at left tackle in spurts last season and junior Blake Bueter has played both center and guard. And with the potential of redshirt freshmen Devontae Dobbs and Spencer Brown and there’s a lot to sort out.

Over on defense, having Panasiuk, Simmons and Henderson as anchors will help the transition for each position group on that side of the ball.

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At linebacker, in particular, Simmons sees how everyone will be counted on.

“I think we can travel 10 or 11 of our linebackers, and at bare minimum those guys who aren’t in the too -deep will be able to go on special teams,” Simmons said. “I’m confident in the ability of everybody in our linebacker room. … We have guys who have to be ready to go. It’s just the way the game goes. Everybody has to be ready, especially in this time. If you’re not ready to go in this time, you’re kind of making a doing yourself a disservice.”

Tucker’s goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that whoever steps on the field is ready to go.

“Our fans deserve to see a brand of football that they can believe in and they can be proud of,” Tucker said. “We’re certainly preparing for a matchup where we’ll get a chance to show what we’re all about.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau