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Michigan State mailbag: Taking a look at backfield depth, defensive rotations

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s been a while, but with Michigan State off to an impressive start and getting ready for a huge trip to Miami on Saturday, we figured it was the perfect time to bring back the mailbag.

How refreshing that we’re not dealing with dozens of questions about the Spartans’ inept offense and whether or not they’ll be competitive this week? Now we’re into depth at running back, how much missing a few defensive ends will hamper things, and what the immediate future looks like under coach Mel Tucker.

We do our best to answer questions on all of those topics and more in this week’s edition of the Michigan State mailbag.

Question: How many running backs will see more than 15 carries per game this year? — @TheRealUDJG

Answer: Two, and you’ve already seen them — Kenneth Walker III and Jordon Simmons. Of course, this all depends on injuries, something that has already become an issue for Michigan State’s running backs. If Elijah Collins doesn’t suffer the leg injury he did last week against Youngstown State, I’d have said three, for sure. Collins looked to have the explosiveness back he showed two seasons ago, but as quickly as he got rolling, he suffered the injury.

But hey, depth is a strength in the backfield, and if for some reason Walker or Simmons run into trouble, it looks like Harold Joiner would be the next option, and even redshirt freshman Donovan Eaglin got some work last week. Assuming things remain status quo, though, expect Walker and Simmons to get the bulk of the work.

Kenneth Walker III (9) has been leading the way for Michigan State's run game.

Q: Will any of our DEs out last week play this week? — @SpartyH

Q: Any word outside of “getting ready to play” for the DE’s? Seems like a big issue if two starters aren’t available. — @Aurelius291

A: This is essentially the same question, so we lumped them together. Tucker made it clear redshirt freshman Itayvion Brown, the Minnesota transfer who started preseason camp as a linebacker before shifting to end, will not be available Saturday at Miami. As for seniors Drew Beesley and Drew Jordan, things sound a little more optimistic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the NFL and teams are not required to release any injury information, and just know, Tucker subscribes to that theory, much as Mark Dantonio did before him.

What is clear, though, is that Tucker sounded much more optimistic about the chances for Beesley and Jordan, so I’d be surprised if they’re not involved. That said, you have to like the way sophomore Jeff Pietrowski played, recording his first career sack.

Q: First, I am totally on board with everything Coach Tucker has done, but there are players who are surprises like Cal Haladay and defensive stalwarts like Xavier Henderson who were Dantonio recruits. Were we too quick to dismiss Coach D's guys in some aspect? — @1012rbc

A: Only time will truly tell on some of the players that opted to leave the program, but if you’re all-in on Tucker, I’d bet you’re all-in on his evaluation. Look, guys like Haladay and Pietrowski likely never would have been recruited by Tucker, but once here, they’ve surely proven they can play. Tucker is no beginner. He’s not letting good players walk. It goes both ways, though. Recruiting rankings and physical tools only go so far, and trust in everything Tucker does means trusting he knows who fits and who doesn’t.

Does that mean every personnel move made will work? Of course not, but letting some guys walk had nothing to do with whose guys they were, that much is certain.

Q: Where can I buy tickets to the national championship game? Actually, I want to know why Angelo Grose is playing safety when he was so good at corner last year and we appear to need help there? — @daveholz

A: You know, Dave, you can go to the national championship game no matter who’s playing in it. Anyway, Grose actually played more at the nickel position last season than corner. There was some work at corner and maybe if you went back and counted snaps, it’s close. But they love him at safety and I wouldn’t count on that changing anytime soon.

And yes, there have been some struggles at corner, but two games in, I don’t think they’re about to blow it all up and not see how some of these corners — Ronald Williams, Chester Kimbrough and perhaps guys like freshman Antoine Booth and transfers Khary Crump and Marqui Lowery — develop. That said, they’d easily be able to shift Michael Dowell to safety and Darius Snow to nickel if they did make that move, I just don’t expect. At least, not right now.

Q: Any update on if and when Ricky White maybe back? We need him for the Michigan game! — @StermerBrian

A: Nothing right now, other than what we already know — he’s enrolled at Michigan State but has not been working out with the team. It’s difficult to speculate, and trust me, there has been plenty of work done trying to figure it out. But in reality, outside of legal issues, not much is public record, so we’re at the mercy of someone talking, which hasn’t happened. As for needing him against Michigan, just trust in the fact the wide receiver group is as deep as any on the team.

Q: Was curious what you thought about attrition this coming offseason. I’m seeing a lot of younger guys and walk-ons ahead of older or scholarship players in the rotations. Wouldn't be surprised to see double digits again personally. — @bpmcgant

A: Perhaps, but I wouldn’t say that’s a Michigan State problem. Yes, some of it will still be things sorting out early in a new coaching tenure, but with the nature of the transfer portal and the one-time exception for sitting out a year now in place, it makes transferring much more attractive to some players. To a certain extent, every team will be dealing with it now, it’s just how it is. The days of guys sticking around for four or five years and never really getting a shot appear to be over. So I’d say don’t sweat it. You never nail every recruit, and sometimes a change of scenery is good for all involved.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau