Michigan State mailbag: Transfer portal ins and outs; did basketball team get exposed?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The biggest news in football these days in the transfer portal.

Michigan State has seen 13 of its players enter the portal looking for a new home while the Spartans have landed the commitments of three other players who are their way in.

Needless to say, this week’s mailbag focused plenty on where things go from here. We do our best to break down what the Spartans might still be looking for in the portal and how that might shape the roster heading into next season.

We also try and figure out how the offensive line can improve before we dive into a couple of basketball questions after Michigan State’s loss to Northwestern has the Spartan faithful feeling a little shaky heading into the Christmas Day matchup with Wisconsin.

Former Temple quarterback Anthony Russo should compete for a starting role at Michigan State next fall.

Question. What football position is the biggest need to fill via the transfer portal? @nybergjo

Answer. They’ve already nailed three of the most important spots by grabbing graduate transfer quarterback Anthony Russo, running back Harold Joiner III and offensive lineman Jarrett Horst. If you would have asked me before those moves, I would have said running back and offensive tackle, for sure, and those two spots have been addressed here. With the way Payton Thorne played late in the season and with the signing of Hamp Fay to the 2021 class, I’m not sure I would have added a grad transfer quarterback with one year of eligibility, but perhaps Mel Tucker and his staff aren’t sold on Thorne. Where else does MSU go? I’d say defensive end is a spot to look at, and landing a player in that spot could be happening soon.

Otherwise, you could use some help at linebacker and maybe even another offensive tackle.

Q. What is your total win prediction for the 2021 MSU Football team? @Mark_Szott

A. That’s a tough one to answer when we’re still not sure what the roster is going to look like. But we’ll take a shot at it anyway. I really believe this team should be about .500 next year with the goal of earning a bowl bid. Obviously, things could go in either direction from there, but you’d have to assume there will be improvement in the running game, which should make the offense more effective.

There are still defensive holes, too, but there were enough signs this year to think a full off-season program followed by spring practice and a standard preseason camp will have this team in much better shape under Tucker and his staff. So, let’s say 6-6 is the target. I can’t see much more than that. If everything goes well, maybe seven or eight wins, but that’s probably pushing it. Shoot for a bowl game and then in 2022 start making a push to contend in the Big Ten East.

Q. Any rumors about 5-star LB from USC? @Aurelius291

A. Of course, we all know we’re talking about Palaie Gaoteote IV, the highly rated linebacker for the Trojans who is in the transfer portal and is the brother of Ma’a Gaoteote, a four-star linebacker who just signed with Michigan State. Right now, the only rumor out of Southern California is that Gaoteote is considering UCLA and UNLV, however, there are no shortage of big-time programs that are interested in landing the former top-15 recruit in the nation. Michigan State is certainly among them and they have the pull of his brother being here, but it’s hardly a foregone conclusion where he’ll end up at this point.

Q. How many more players do you expect MSU to add from the transfer portal? I’m thinking one more offensive lineman and defensive backs would be helpful. @JohnnyMacSparty

A. I think you’re right on the offensive lineman, particularly if it’s another tackle. I also think they’d love to add some speed on the edge defensively at the end position, as well is at linebacker. Defensive back could be an option, too, namely cornerback considering the recent losses to the transfer portal. But three cornerbacks were just signed to the 2021 class, so we’ll have to see. So, I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast number at this point and if there’s a good player that’s available, I don’t think this team turns anyone down regardless of position if they think that player can help.

Harold Joiner

Q. With the addition of Joiner through the portal do you see any other RBs leaving the program? @Chocolatebabyd1

A. That’s a tough one. The numbers would suggest it’s a pretty crowded room at this point when you consider it would include Connor Heyward, Elijah Collins, Brandon Wright, Jordon Simmons, Donovan Eaglin, Davion Primm and Joiner. That’s seven scholarship running backs and you’d have to assume every one of those guys expects to get a shot at playing. My guess is we’ll see more movement here, the only question is who will it be and how many?

Collins has to be wondering about his role after leading the team in rushing in 2019 and Wright might be in the same boat after playing primarily special teams this season. It seems, at this point, the only sure things for 2021 would be Simmons, Joiner and Primm. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Q. This one comes from and email and concerns the offensive line woes. It’s fairly long so we’ll boil it down.

It essentially asks, considering the fairly consistent recruiting rankings and sizes of the current offensive lineman, why have we not seen more improvement from the offensive line? @Steven A. Kandt

A. This I probably the biggest question surrounding this offense, and quite frankly, that’s been the case for the last few years. There have been a handful of higher-ranked recruits over the years. Some have made a contribution — Kevin Jarvis was a four-star — and some haven’t — Devontae Dobbs was a four-star. Up until last year’s class, though, there haven’t been enough difference-makers. There are good signs from Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain and it sounds like Spencer Brown and James Ohonba have a chance, but that’s not enough. They simply need better players. That can be blamed on recruiting or it can be the development of those recruits. In the end, that all lands on the coaches. I feel like offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic started to get more out of his group late in the season and it’s hard to get on him too much considering the limited time he’s really had with these guys. Let’s see what this unit looks like in the spring. My guess is you’ll see a significant jump from what we saw this year.

Q. Basketball question. What teams, if any in the B1G, are considered “bad losses” right now? Even the unranked teams have good records and some impressive wins. @msuspartangirl

A. That’s a good question and it speaks to how good the Big Ten is from top to bottom. The only sure win it seems like there is at this point is Nebraska, and that’s not exactly a guarantee. As bad as Michigan State played at Northwestern, let’s not ignore the Wildcats. They just went and won at Indiana an are 2-0 in the conference for the first time since 2006. We already know how good Iowa is, and the same thing goes for Wisconsin, Illinois and Rutgers. Teams in the middle are tough, too, with Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue and even Penn State playing tough. Maryland and Minnesota are wild cards but have the talent to win any night. It’s a tough league, to be sure, and any win at this point is going to feel like a good one.

Q. Did we get exposed? Is it time to panic? @daveholz

A. Hmmmm. Exposed as a good but not great team in a deep, deep conference? Sure. But that’s what a lot of teams are this year — good enough to beat just about anyone but not good enough to win if you don’t play well. There have been plenty of Michigan State teams in the past that were talented enough to win even when they weren’t dialed in. This isn’t one of them. That’s not to say the Spartans can’t win the Big Ten and have a deep tournament run, but the margin for error is much smaller. So, no, it’s not time to panic.

Let’s see how things play out over the next week or two before we make any huge judgements.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau