MSU banks on payoff for receivers’ growing pains

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Donnie Corley

East Lansing – If Michigan State’s offensive struggles this season seem a bit familiar, the way the receiving corps has played would be one of the biggest reasons.

Back in 2012, when the Spartans suffered frustrating loss after frustrating loss, the inexperienced group of receivers had a bad case of the drops. It was a big reason Andrew Maxwell never gained any confidence as the quarterback, but it proved to be a necessary growing pain.

But from that group, Michigan State produced the likes of Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett and Aaron Burbridge. Each played a key role in Michigan State’s success over the next three seasons while Lippett and Burbridge won the last two Big Ten Receiver of the Year awards.

If this season’s group produces in the same fashion, there will be a time they look back at 2016 as a necessary evil – dealing with dropped passes, confusion on routes and generally learning how to be productive at the Big Ten level. It’s something wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel is working toward each week.

“I think some older guys are playing OK and some younger guys are just coming,” Samuel said this week as Michigan State prepares to host Northwestern on Saturday. “They’re going to make mistakes and you’ve got to coach them through it. It’s no different than what we were at in 2012.

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“Some guys go out there and sometimes they just float and they really don’t understand the why, the sense of urgency, the reason you call a certain play. It’s just time. The more they experience it, the more they get better and they start making more plays and then the confidence comes.”

Senior R.J. Shelton is the only receiver back with significant experience, but after that the talent sure appears to be there, especially with freshman Donnie Corley, who is second on the team with 16 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown. He’s now a starter but, he’s not the only youngster the Spartans will be counting on moving forward.

Trishton Jackson

Fellow freshman Trishton Jackson is slowly working into the rotation while sophomore Felton Davis has been hampered by minor injuries but played last season as a true freshman. Samuel also expects redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart to make a contribution and freshman Cam Chambers is simply stuck behind a fifth-year senior – Monty Madaris – and likely will redshirt this season.

One wild card is freshman Justin Layne, who saw his first action two weeks ago against Indiana but was switched to cornerback last week against BYU.

“I knew how good of an athlete he was on both sides of the ball,” Samuel said. “So it was something we always kinda talked about. Of course I'm always trying to keep my wideouts; I'm not exactly trying to share them over there. But hey, it's all hands on deck. If he can go out there and make plays, he needs to be on the field making plays. Whatever that may be.”

King coming along

As Michigan State continues to try and find a way to the quarterback, it’s looking at all options. One of those options is freshman defensive end Josh King.

King and fellow freshman Auston Robertson have both seen action this season, but it’s been King that has played more and more snaps and at 6-foot-6 and 267 pounds, the Spartans feel he has the tools to help add to the meager sack total of five this season.

“We’re still trying to work Auston in, but Josh King is really coming along,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “Josh King has the tools. He’s starting to learn the defense. And now he needs to gain confidence in terms of going full speed ahead, that he can go full speed ahead and still know what to do. If you turned on the tape and focused on him, you’d see plays where he is playing 100 miles an hour, and you would also see plays when you could tell he was trying to analyze and think before he went. So we get him to use all of his tools every play, he will get more and more opportunities.”

Price a finalist

It’s been a busy week for fifth-year senior tight end Josiah Price, who was named to the midseason watch list for the Mackey Award while also being named a candidate for the Senior CLASS Award.

The Mackey Award is given annually to the top tight end in the country, and it’s the second straight year Price has been named a finalist. This season, Price has 14 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns. His 18 career touchdown receptions are the most for a tight end in Michigan State history and it ranks sixth overall

To be eligible for the CLASS award, a student-athlete must be classified as an NCAA Division I FBS senior and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition. Former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins won the award in 2011.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau