MSU mailbag: Elijah Collins, offensive line are off to a slow start

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

One game in, and there’s a sense of panic around the Michigan State football team.

OK, maybe panic is too much. How about concern? Yeah, that probably works better.

And it makes sense. Losing to Rutgers in the first game for Mel Tucker is not a good look by itself, but doing so by turning the ball over seven times and doing their best to hand the game away was not what many expected from the Spartans.

Growing pains? Sure. Some difficult Saturdays? Yup.

But this loss was tough to watch, and with Michigan up next, folks have plenty of questions. We did our best to answer them in this week’s mailbag.

Michigan State cornerback Julian Barnett has entered the transfer portal.

Question: What is going on with Julian Barnett and Devontae Dobbs? They were high level recruits but don’t seem to get a lot playing time. Feels like they could both contribute to the team. — @GordanMitevski1

Answer: You’re right about one thing: They were both high-level recruits, and I wouldn’t be counting either out just yet. It’s a bit easier to break down Barnett at this point, because at least he’s out on the field and Mel Tucker is talking about him. Everyone knows Barnett played wide receiver last year as a freshman, despite coming to MSU as one of the top-ranked cornerbacks in the nation. Most of that had to do with need, and MSU felt like they needed more help on offense. Now that Barnett has made the switch, the expectation was he’d jump right in as a starter. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet. He did play well on special teams against Rutgers and it’s hard to keep that talent off the field, so I’d expect to see him soon. But, also don’t forget that MSU has recruited plenty of talent at the position, and guys like Kalon Gervin, Chris Jackson, Davion Williams and freshman Angelo Grose are in the mix, too. Can we rule out a return to offense? Probably not, but for now, the plan is to stick with defense.

As for Dobbs, it’s a bit tougher. He wasn’t dressed for the opener, but we don’t know why. It could be an injury. It could be COVID-19. It could be he’s not playing well. Considering the issues the offensive line had the in the opener, MSU fans better hope it’s not because he’s not playing well enough. That would be disappointing if that is the case.

Q. Should we shut down the football program and give all the money to hockey to try and establish a hockey power? — @FortuNateShev

A. OK, I understand there aren’t many fans walking around this week feeling great about what went down in the opener. And just as many are leery of what might happen this weekend in Ann Arbor. But try to take out the turnovers, including the inability to convert on fourth down. I know, you can’t when it comes to that game, but look beyond them and you see some bright spots. Rocky Lombardi played well, the receivers — namely, Jayden Reed — were impressive and the defense, overall, was not bad. The offensive line did not play well and suddenly the running back spot is unclear, so it’s not like there aren’t issues. But considering we’re one game into the Mel Tucker era and he’s not coaching a single guy he recruited, maybe letting this thing play out is a fair option. … But I’m sure hockey would take it.

Q. Is the lack of a depth chart from Coach Tucker a motivational tool for the players or the actual lack of depth?? — @Chocolatebabyd1

A. I think part of it is Tucker doing his best to create competition, making each player on the roster feel like they have a shot to contribute. That, alone, should provide plenty of motivation and I don’t doubt that some of the lineup decisions in the opener had something to do with sending a few messages. But the reality is that the available players can change from week to week. Injuries play a big role in that every year, but add in COVID-19, and it’s not crazy to think a team will have to go four to five deep in some positions to make it through the season.

Q. Is the third- or fourth-and-short play calling going to continue to be so ... terrible? — @DavidJa88692244

A. It’s a fair question, to be sure. Let’s just focus on the two fourth-down attempts that failed to convert. The first came in the first quarter with MSU facing a fourth-and-3 and the call was a run to Elijah Collins. The second came late in the third quarter with MSU facing a fourth-and-2 and this time it handed the ball of to Jordon Simmons. Let’s not put all the blame on the backs, and let’s not dump it on the blocking – though neither aspect was flawless. Instead, I’m with you, I’m pinning this one on the play-calling. Michigan State finished the game averaging 1.3 yards a carry, so it would stand to reason that if you needed 2 or 3 yards, running off tackle might not be the best move. On its other two fourth-downs, MSU threw the ball. One resulted in a 50-yard touchdown pass from Lombardi to Reed and the other went for 13 yards and a first down to tight end Matt Dotson.

Michigan State running back Elijah Collins had nine carries for three yards in a loss to Rutgers.

Q. Elijah Collins??? — @BKulzick

A. That’s a fairly straight-forward question, if you can call it that, but I get it. Collins ran for almost 1,000 yards last season and many expected he’d pick up right where he left off. But when Connor Heyward started, that was an alarm bell. And when Collins did get in, he looked slow, setting off more alerts. Now, some of the issue was poor blocking, but Collins simply looked out of sorts. Tucker indicated the rotation at running back was based on production in practice, which is concerning. Either Collins is getting outplayed, or he came to camp unprepared. Neither is ideal for a player with such high expectations.

Q. Why didn't we see more of Dobbs, Duplain, Samac and Campbell? They had earned major playing time at the end of last season. I thought Kap (offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic) was supposed to be a great OL coach? It's one game, but you sure couldn't tell it. — @pfnnewmedia

A. We hit on some of this earlier. Quick side note: Luke Campbell? He’s proven to me to be a versatile backup and nothing more. Let’s focus this on Dobbs, J.D. Duplain and Nick Samac. I’m with you, I expected to at least see plenty of Duplain and Samac and both got a handful of plays. Would they have made a huge difference? I don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine it much worse than Blake Bueter and Matt Allen. And considering they’re building blocks for the future, I’d rather see them. As for Dobbs, who knows? We haven’t been given any indication if he was out for performance or some sort of injury/illness.

Q. Do you think we can expect Rocky to become more accurate on deep balls this week/rest of season? I think I saw he didn’t complete pass of 20+ yards in the air. — @parkerjkent

A. I think there’s a decent chance because, quite frankly, he didn’t have a chance to throw too many. I know he missed one in the second half to Jalen Nailor that would have kept a drive rolling, but it’s not like there were a ton of misses down the field, something that’s tough to do if you have to get rid of it quickly.

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns against Rutgers, but he also threw two interceptions.

Q. Do you think it'll be Rocky all the way or will we see one of the other two? And.... Is MSU keeping a QB — maybe Noah Kim — sequestered to prevent a Badger like QB epidemic? — @pfnnewmedia

A. Before the first game, I would have guessed we’d see multiple quarterbacks. After the way Lombardi played, I’m not as sure about that. Perhaps, if the season goes south, there’s more incentive to play Theo Day or Payton Thorne, but for now, it’s probably Lombardi’s job. As for the idea on Kim, maybe. But it’s not just one position group that has shut things down for the Badgers.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau