BLOOMINGTON – Michigan State endured some growing pains in Mel Tucker’s first season as head coach.
Turnovers on offense compromised the defense, as the Spartans stumbled to a 2-5 record during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Michigan State lost at home to Rutgers to open the season and suffered lopsided losses at Iowa (49-7) and at home to Ohio State (52-12).
Because Tucker wasn’t hired until February of 2020, Michigan State was hamstrung more than any other conference team due to the pandemic. There wasn’t much time to learn new systems on offense and defense, and the results showed on the field.
Still, there were some bright spots in Tucker’s first year, including a 27-24 win over rival Michigan and a 29-20 win over West Division champion Northwestern.
There is hope an offense that returns seven starters and a defense that returns seven starters can make strides under Tucker in 2021. There’s still talent on both sides of the ball, led by receivers Jalen Nailor (26 catches, 515 yards, four TDs), Jayden Reed (33 catches, 407 yards, three TDs) and defensive end Jacub Panasiuk (nine career sacks, four career forced fumbles).
Here’s an early outlook for Michigan State heading into the 2021 season:
WHAT THEY LOST
Cornerback Shakur Brown, who recorded seven career interceptions, declared early for the NFL draft and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Team captain Antjuan Simmons (231 career tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) graduated, leaving a void at outside linebacker and with leadership. Starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who passed for 1,090 yards with eight TDs and nine interceptions last season, transferred to Northern Illinois.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo (6,292 career passing yards, 44 career TD passes, 32 career interceptions) will compete with Payton Thorne for the starting job at quarterback. Wake Forrest transfer Kenneth Walker and Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III are two running backs capable of solidifying the run game. True freshman Ma’a Gaoteote, a four-star linebacker from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, could step in and contribute right away on defense.
PROSPECTS FOR 2021
Michigan State is going to need more consistent quarterback play – either from Russo or Thorne – to turn its fortunes around in Big Ten play. Cutting down on turnovers (a league-high 20 in 2020) is a must, and more playmakers must emerge on defense for Tucker’s system to work. Moving up the standings in the rough and tumble Big Ten East will be tough, but possible if the Spartans can develop more discipline and productivity on both sides of the ball.