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Jalen Nailor, Michigan State receivers turning heads with big-play potential

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Back in 2018, Felton Davis would tell anyone who would listen about a new, young, quick wide receiver on Michigan State’s roster.

While Davis was fond of Jalen Nailor’s ability, he also wanted everyone to know the youngster’s nickname – Speedy.

From early in preseason camp through the season, Davis would talk often about Speedy. And just three games into that season, Spartans fans got a glimpse of what Davis was talking about when the freshman dashed 75 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal a victory at Indiana.

It seemed great things were coming for the Las Vegas native. A true game-breaker, something the Spartans have lacked, for the most part, Nailor had big play written all over him. And after finishing his freshman season with a modest eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns as well as nine carries for 128 yards and a score, he was primed for a breakout in 2019.

Jalen Nailor

Injuries caught up to Nailor quickly, though, as a broken foot sidelined him for all but four games last season, allowing him to hang on to his redshirt but leaving the wide receiver room lacking a true speedster.

Fast forward to the start of this season, and while the Spartans have struggled to consistently score points through three games, the receiving corps has flashed plenty of speed, led by none other than Nailor, who is clearly 100% after spending the long offseason getting his foot as healthy as possible.

“It took a while for me to get my wheels back,” Nailor said this week, “but I think they're back.”

That’s been obvious as Nailor leads Michigan State in receiving yards with 271 on 12 receptions. He also has the longest reception of the year, a 57-yarder last week at Iowa to go along with a 56-yarder earlier in the same game. The Spartans lost in one-sided fashion, but Nailor had four catches for 119 yards, providing at least a little spark to the offense.

Michigan State wide receiver Ricky White makes a reception in front of Michigan defensive back Jalen Perry.

It’s the same spark Jayden Reed offered in the opener against Rutgers and what Nailor and freshman Ricky White provided in the victory over Michigan. The deep ball was the Spartans’ biggest weapon and will likely be part of the game plan moving forward.

“It’s a real momentum changer just knowing that the offense might not be clicking so, hit a deep ball, we’ve got momentum,” Nailor said. “It just hypes the whole team up, just making a deep play, knowing that we have a great chance of scoring from there.”

It’s been about the only constant from Michigan State’s offense to this point as quarterback Rocky Lombardi has been able to count on the speed of his receivers above anything else. The vertical passing game has been effective, though it was limited by Iowa last week.

More: MSU mailbag: Will the Spartans win another game in 2020? Well ...

The offensive approach is also a new one for those that have been around, namely Nailor and Lombardi. Add in the fact the offseason was stunted by COVID-19 and the fact there is a new coaching staff, and there have been growing pains.

“It’s a whole new offense so we’re still learning pieces and we’re just improving in practice every week,” Nailor said. “We’ve just been getting more consistent, more on the same page. I really like the way me and Rocky have been connecting and really been looking these past few weeks.”

Odds are it’s a passing game that will continue to get better each week. While Lombardi threw three interceptions last week, he played well in each of the first two games. And with a young, talented receiving corps, he has no shortage of options.

In addition to Nailor, Reed has a team-high 13 catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns while White, who had eight grabs for 196 yards and a score against Michigan, has 10 receptions for 223 yards on the season. Sophomore Tre Mosley has missed the last two games with injury but should be back soon, while freshmen Terry Locket Jr. and Montorie Foster as well as redshirt freshmen Tre’Von Morgan and Cade McDonald are also getting some work.

“We have a young room,” Nailor said. “We don’t really have plenty of old guys, we have a pretty young room so there’s a lot of development going on, there’s a lot of potential being reached. We just compete every day and try to push ourselves every day in the meeting rooms and out on the practice field. It’s just real fun just knowing that we have weapons you guys haven’t even seen.”

People have seen Nailor and he’s hoping they see a lot more as the season progresses. He loves the way he’s being used in Jay Johnson’s offense, flashing his speed on a wheel that’s rolling smoothly.

“His willingness to go deep and take shots down the field, I feel like that plays into my role well,” Nailor said of Johnson’s offense. “I’m a speed guy, so you’ve got to go deep sometimes. I feel like he implemented that a lot and just mixing it up here and there, just trying to get guys in space with the ball.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau