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Opponent Q&A: Getting to know the Spartans with MSU beat writer

ByZach Shaw 3 hours ago

Ahead of the No. 13 Michigan football team’s home matchup against Michigan State, we got the latest on the Spartans from 247Sports Michigan State beat reporter Stephen Brooks. He discussed Michigan State’s struggles, passing game, Mel Tucker, new contributors to know and more. See what he had to say below.

1. Obviously a season-opening loss to Rutgers is surprising, but how much of the defeat is concerning in the long-term for Michigan State, as opposed to being isolated to one game?

It’s a bit hard to say. Seven turnovers really have a way of muddying the evaluation, you know? I certainly don’t expect MSU to routinely give the ball away that much, though, I guess at this point that’s nothing more than an assumption. Beyond the turnovers, the main takeaway, without question, was that this offensive line still looks incapable of being able to compete at a Big Ten level. Spartan fans have been watching sub-standard O-line play for the past two seasons, and Saturday did nothing to make anyone believe it’ll be any different this year.

New offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic came in with a sterling reputation, and he’ll have to earn his paycheck with this group. The interior of the line was especially concerning, with far too many run plays derailed before they ever had a chance. As we’ve seen recently at MSU, a bad line starts to decay everything an offense wants to do. MSU has some promising skill players, and QB Rocky Lombardi was OK in Game 1, but this offensive line will have to improve dramatically to give MSU a chance moving forward.

2. What are some of the key improvements Mel Tucker has made or will make? What are your early impressions of him as a coach?

Considering the way his on-field debut went, I guess I have to point to off-the-field stuff. I think, overall, in just about every way, he’s injected some life into a program that had become dated and stale in the final years under Mark Dantonio. He’s fleshed out the creative team to whip up fancy videos and graphics, he’s put a major emphasis on connecting with the fan base through social media and he’s built up the manpower in the recruiting department.

So, things that are new around here but far from groundbreaking among college football’s elite. Basically, he’s modernized the program on a variety of fronts and brought things into 2020.

We can only wait and see what type of return Tucker gets from those off-field investments, but everyone is expecting him to be able to recruit a higher caliber of player than Dantonio typically brought in, especially in the later years. That’ll obviously determine the course of his tenure here. Tucker certainly knows what a high-level program is supposed to look like coming off of recent stints at Alabama and Georgia, but he’s still got to prove it in the big chair. Obviously, his 5-7 year at Colorado didn’t knock anybody’s socks off.

So far, I’d say I’m impressed by what he’s said and done, though there’s little to go off at this point. All those off-field things I mentioned are smart moves on his part, for sure, to try to rehabilitate MSU’s brand. I definitely think he knows what he’s doing in that regard. He’s a Nick Saban disciple, and those roots are on display quite often when he speaks about “the process.” Tucker also preaches “neutral thinking” to his team, and so far he’s embodying that as he’s not very animated on the sideline and he strikes the same, consistent tone in every press conference.

It’s still early for me to form any real opinions because I’ve only had two conversations with him that weren’t through a computer screen. And because of that unfamiliarity on both sides, I still think he’s got his guard up quite a bit when speaking publicly. In time I expect we’ll get to see a different side of him, but for now he’s very much a focused, Saban-esque taskmaster.

3. It did seem like Michigan State’s passing game showed some life last week, what’s working well there? Is it sustainable in your eyes?

The addition of receiver Jayden Reed, who sat out last season after transferring from Western Michigan, has absolutely given the offense a shot in the arm. He’s just a different type of athlete than MSU has had on the perimeter in quite some time. Reed fumbled twice last week — including the first play from scrimmage — but his 11-catch effort backed up a lot of the hype I’d heard about him behind the scenes. He’s a smooth route-runner who’s slick and hard to bring down in the open field. Then Tre Mosley, a bigger possession guy, and Jalen Nailor, perhaps the fastest player on the team, round out a pretty strong top-three. (Mosley left last week’s game with a leg injury, though, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll be playing in Ann Arbor.)

Lombardi, by completing 72% of his passes against Rutgers, looked like a completely different player than the one who started three games in 2018. That’s not to say he’s All-Big Ten material, don’t get me wrong, but compared to what we saw from him early in his career, this was a major, major improvement. He’s still got some accuracy problems, and both of his interceptions were the result of communication mixups with his wideouts last week, but there were more promising throws in that game than his entire career leading up to that point. I still think his ceiling is probably a middle-of-the-road Big Ten starter. I think he can be a solid game manager with a good supporting cast around him — which he has, sans an offensive line — and a smart game plan.

New OC Jay Johnson did a decent job of tailoring things to Lombardi’s strengths last week, which meant limited deep shots. They’re obviously going to have to iron out that part of the offense at some point, but of course that requires the ability to keep the quarterback on his feet. Those three receivers form a nice trio, though, and if Lombardi can remain upright and send catchable balls their way, MSU should at least be able to count on that.

4. What’s up with Elijah Collins? Can the Spartans establish more of a run game this week and moving forward?

That’s the big question. Tucker mentioned his desire to be a physical, run-on-our-terms kind of team at his introductory press conference. I’m not convinced the Spartans have the line to do it, as I detailed above. Collins didn’t look like himself at all last Saturday, and we haven’t been able to gather exactly what’s going on there. I don’t know if it was an injury situation or what, but he was slow and apprehensive with the ball in his hands against Rutgers. He looked like a completely different back than the one who rushed for almost 1,000 yards a year ago.

True freshman Jordon Simmons provided a bit of a spark on the ground, and he’ll be a guy to watch for this weekend at the Big House. He’s a Georgia native known for his straight-line speed, and he’s made a quick impression on the new coaching staff. But again, everything can be traced back to MSU’s offensive line woes. There’s a ton of guys who have played a lot of snaps and/or started games up front, but MSU hasn’t been able to find a workable solution there across multiple seasons and, now, multiple coaching staffs.

5. It seems like a number of multi-year contributors are gone from last season’s team. Which new starters or contributors should Michigan fans be most aware of heading into the matchup?

Reed, the slot receiver, would be the first, no question. He’s a legit talent and MSU’s best big-play threat. Simmons, the freshman running back, might be on his way to becoming something. Trenton Gillison is a big-bodied tight end and former four-star recruit who seems overdue for a breakout season given his physical gifts, but he was a non-factor against Rutgers. Defensively, tackle Naquan Jones is a longtime contributor but first-year starter who can be a disruptive presence in the middle of the line. Defensive end Drew Beesley is in the same category as someone who has played a lot but just now becoming a starter in his final season. He’s an undersized grinder with a high motor who had a nice game against Rutgers. There are a handful of other new starters on defense, but it’s too early to judge a lot of them as they settle into the new 4-2-5 defense.

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