MSU position battles could begin to unfurl in first scrimmage

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State practiced in full pads for the first time in preseason camp on Wednesday, and now heading into the weekend, things really start to get serious.

That’s because the Spartans will run through their first scrimmage on Saturday, and the numerous position battles on both sides of the ball could start to come into focus as Michigan State prepares to open the season Sept. 3 at Northwestern.

Mel Tucker

Most of the attention will be directed toward the quarterbacks, where graduate transfer Anthony Russo and sophomore Payton Thorne are in a tight battle to become the starter. Odds are the snaps will be split fairly evenly with the first team during Saturday’s scrimmage, and whoever plays better will put themselves in a good position heading into the final two weeks of camp.

So far, it seems Thorne has the slight edge. He did way back in April during Michigan State’s open spring practice, and during a quick full-team drill early in practice on Wednesday, he took first-team snaps while Russo came in with the second unit.

More: Michigan State strives for quality in its quantity of experienced offensive linemen

Of course, there’s a long way to go before the first game and coach Mel Tucker has kept his feelings fairly quiet. And outside of which player is working with which unit, the hints have been just as hard for the rest of the team to decipher.

“I think they’re both pretty talented,” senior offensive tackle AJ Arcuri said. “To be completely honest, I know just as much as you do, whatever that is. But I’m excited to see what happens.”

Which makes Saturday’s scrimmage so important. It won’t determine whether Thorne or Russo lands the job, but it will be an opportunity for one to pull away.

The same goes for multiple positions on offense. The first-team line appears to be Matt Allen at center with Jarrett Horst at left tackle, J.D. Duplain at left guard, Kevin Jarvis at right guard and Arcuri at right tackle. But the scrimmage will give Nick Samac at center — offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic called the Allen-Samac race a “really good battle” — as well as veterans like Blake Bueter, Matt Carrick and Luke Campbell a chance to stake their claim.

The first two receivers are clear with Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, but it’s a toss-up from there with sophomores Tre Mosley, Montorie Foster and Terry Lockett all getting reps along with senior C.J. Hayes, freshman Keon Coleman and redshirt freshman Christian Fitzpatrick.

And running back is a jam-packed room at this point. In Wednesday’s practice, junior Elijah Collins ran with the first team, sophomore Jordon Simmons with the second and junior transfer Kenneth Walker III with the third. Expect plenty of rotation there with transfer Harold Joiner also factoring into the mix.

An intriguing glimpse we saw this week was senior Connor Heyward working with the tight ends as opposed to the running backs.

“The running back room is talented and the best guy is going to play,” Heyward said last week. “But I know I can help the team in other facets and other phases, and I'm willing to do that.”

Heyward appears headed toward a role more like his freshman season when he was used at various spots on the offense. At tight end, he’ll be looking to find time with junior Trenton Gillison and senior Tyler Hunt as the most experienced players with freshman Kameron Allen also worth keeping an eye on.

“He’s a versatile player,” Tucker said of Heyward. “He can do many, many things. And anywhere in the backfield, he's effective.”

The defensive side of the ball has nearly as many questions, some of which could start to be solved coming out of Saturday’s scrimmage.

At end, expect plenty of reps for seniors Jacub Panasiuk, Drew Beesley and Drew Jordan, but during practice, sophomore Jeff Pietrowski was getting plenty of work while redshirt freshman Avery Dunn and transfer linebacker Itayvion Brown worked as a stand-up defensive end. Inside, Jacob Slade, Jalen Hunt and Dashaun Mallory will be mainstays, but redshirt freshman Simeon Barrow continues to open eyes.

At linebacker, transfer Ben VanSumeren and junior Chase Kline worked first followed by senior Noah Harvey and redshirt freshman Cal Haladay. And in the secondary, junior Kalon Gervin and Florida transfer Chester Kimbrough were the first set of cornerbacks with senior Xavier Henderson and sophomore Angelo Grose at safety and junior Michael Dowell at nickel. The second unit included Alabama transfer Ronald Williams and senior Emmanuel Flowers at corner, redshirt freshman Darius Snow at nickel and sophomore Tate Hallock and freshman A.J. Kirk at safety.

“The competition level on our team has improved from a year ago,” Tucker said. “We have more guys that are capable of playing, so there's more competition. … We’re able to shuffle the lineup by day based on production.

“It's what we see on tape. I tell them, ‘The tape makes the team.’ What we see on tape determines who plays, and if it's not on tape, it doesn't exist.”

There were some notable names missing on Wednesday that could change things if they’re available for the scrimmage and beyond. Linebacker Quavaris Crouch, a Tennessee transfer who is expected to have a big role, left practice early on Wednesday, while redshirt freshman tight end Maliq Carr, the Purdue transfer, was back in uniform after wearing a boot on his foot the previous week. And where sophomore wide receiver Ricky White stands remains up in the air as he was not practicing and Tucker offered no clarification on White’s status when asked.

Instead, he’ll keep an eye on the competition taking place, something that will surely be intense on Saturday.

“I told them, that's why we're out here,” Tucker said. “We're finding out who can help us, who loves football, who lives football, and we're going to play the guy that plays with toughness — mental and physical. Those are the guys that we're going to play, and then we'll set our schemes to fit those guys and do what those guys can do.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau