East Lansing — Maybe it’s out of necessity, maybe it’s because they’re just that good. Whatever it is, Michigan State will be counting on its share of true freshmen this season.
As the Spartans are set to kick off the season at noon Saturday against Bowling Green, 14 true freshmen appear on the depth chart with five in the two-deep. That number goes up to six if you count special teams where wide receiver Laress Nelson is listed as the No. 2 kick and punt returner.
Needless to say, youth is being served at Michigan State.
“We have a very, very good freshmen class,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “You’ll see the result of some of those guys playing and you’ll recognize that as time goes, whether it’s this year, throughout this year or seriously next year, if we decide to hold a couple of guys out.
“We’ll probably travel a lot of freshmen. And it’s not really by necessity, it’s by — they really sort of won the positions a little bit.”
While there is talent in the freshmen class, necessity is also an issue.
At wide receiver, Hunter Rison and Cody White are both in the two-deep and will almost certainly see the field early while Nelson is listed as a third-teamer. With only 20 career catches among the three starters, it’s clear the Spartans need players.
Also on offense, Michigan State is light on experience at tight end, opening the door for Matt Dotson, who is listed No. 3 behind junior Matt Sokol and redshirt freshman Noah Davis. On the offensive line, right guard Kevin Jarvis and right tackle Jordan Reid are at No. 2 with Mustafa Khaleefah No. 3 at left tackle.
Along with a few redshirt freshmen, it has forced the Spartans to simplify things a bit.
“Yeah, we’ve tried to, we tried to starting last spring,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “Maybe not to simplify, but to maybe be a little slower in our install, and so there’s no doubt we’re going to be younger and that’s going to be a key to how we do this Saturday and throughout the season is how well those young guys pick things up. We’ve tried to tailor things around those guys.”
It’s much the same on the defensive side of the ball.
Only cornerback Josiah Scott is in the two-deep, but four more are listed at No. 3, including defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, outside linebacker Antjuan Simmons and safeties Tre Person and Dominque Long.
“They’ve proven themselves to be able to get out there on the field and play for us,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “And not necessarily just defense, but special teams and all those type of things. It’s a good class, a really good class.”
Panasiuk could add some spark to a dormant pass rush while Simmons offers athleticism on the edge. As for the defensive backs, Scott is a sure-fire participant this season while Person and Long are up in the air. Person is making the switch to safety from cornerback and Long has steadily progressed through camp.
“We’re going to get him more seasoned first but he’s right there,” Barnett said of Long. “It’s a matter of learning the system and getting it down. He’s coming. He’s an intelligent young man also and he really cares about his performance and trying to get better each and every day. He’ll play for us at some point in time. I don’t know if it’ll be this year or later this year or next year, whenever it may be, but he will be a player for us.”
Scott has drawn plenty of attention since he enrolled early and stood out in the spring. Since early in preseason camp, Dantonio has talked about him as a starter.
However, Scott suffered a minor injury during camp and the starting job was won by sophomore Josh Butler. However, expect both to play plenty along with sophomore Justin Layne and junior Tyson Smith.
“Josiah had an outstanding spring and then got a little nicked up here in fall camp and Josh had an outstanding fall camp and did a great job for us,” Barnett said. “That’s a good problem to have. We’re happy obviously that Justin Lane is with us as well as Tyson Smith. I expect all those guys to play especially in a fast-paced offense.”