Wide Receiver Preview: Reed, Nailor, _______
At first glance, there aren't many parts of the Michigan State Football program that appear to be elite. A year ago, we saw a struggling O-line and stagnant running game, inconsistent at best QB play that devolved to downright abysmal at it's worst, an un-reliable pass rush and a back seven that seemed to be playing "what could go wrong this week" roulette. It was a tough season with a lot of holes.
But despite all those woes, the Spartans' wide receivers provided a spark of optimism and plenty of reasons to feel good about the future. And yes - they could make a push to be an elite pass catching unit in 2021. Anchored by the now-familiar duo of Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, Mel Tucker's squad returns a diverse group of pass catchers with proven talent and still plenty of room to grow and improve.
In a COVID abbreviated season a year ago, Jayden Reed showed a toolkit most WR coaches would drool over. He gets off the line quickly, runs sharp routes, has enough twitch to create separation in congested areas, and he's an electric playmaker who can make things happen after the catch. In just seven games, he hauled in 33 catches for 404 yards and 3 TDs.
Opposite Reed, Jalen Nailor flashed the kind of speed that can challenge the top of any secondary in the country. A former track standout, Nailor consistently hauled in chunk plays, averaging almost 20 yards per catch with a season line of 26 catches, 515 yards and 4 TDs.
If we expanded those numbers to a typical 12 game regular season, you're looking at a top-two receiving duo that would have combined for 101 catches, 1575 yards and 12 TDs. While that may not necessarily look like All-B1G production, keep in mind they were supported by lack-luster QB play and next to no help from the running game. All that against a schedule that featured exclusively Big Ten competition that ranked the 10th most challenging schedule in the nation. With a more well-rounded offense and a competent QB, combined with the potential for some early-season stat padding, don't be surprised if both of these guys are pushing for All-B1G spots as this season unfolds.
But the year is 2021, and in today's college football it's going to take more than two receivers to win games through the air. Beyond the top two, Tucker and WR coach Courtney Hawkins have their hands full identifying a third starter and a two-deep group that can consistently create mismatches across the field.
Of the remaining receivers, I see four guys who can legitimately push for the third starting spot, and a handful more who will be competing for snaps.
One of the only other returning players with any history of production is redshirt sophomore Tre Mosley. After showing flashes of potential in six appearances his true freshman year in 2019, Mosley was hampered by injury most of last season, making limited appearances in four games. He comes into the 2021 season with 28 career receptions for just shy of 300 yards and a touchdown. Mosley already has experience lining up alongside Reed and Nailor, and has the physicality to fight for catches against tight coverage on the outside.
Beyond Mosley, things start to get very speculative. One name that's consistently been bubbling up throughout fall camp is true sophomore Montorie Foster. But while Foster did appear in all seven games last season, he has yet to haul in his first career catch. It'll be interesting to see how his skills translate to production, and how the staff would use him alongside the top two.
One potential downside to playing either Mosley or Foster alongside MSU's top two is that all four largely share the same size profile. They're all between 6' and 6'2", and 185-200 lbs, and they leave the Spartans without a lot of size on the outside, which became all too apparent when MSU managed to find the red zone last season.
That's where I think Tucker will turn his attention to a pair of newcomers for support. Both listed at 6'4" and upwards of 200 lbs, true freshman Keon Coleman and incoming transfer redshirt freshman Christian Fitzpatrick both offer the size and leaping ability to challenge cornerbacks in jump ball situations. It's yet to be seen how quickly either of them can pick up the playbook and earn their share of snaps, but I expect one of these guys to find the field this year and provide a different look on the outside.
Beyond those six, don't be surprised to see names like Terry Lockett, Cade McDonald, Ian Stewart or even Ricky White (assuming he can resolve whatever his keeping him away from the team this offseason) find their way to the field and contribute in some way.
Looking up and down this receiving group, one thing is clear. They are very, very young. With CJ Hayes moving to the defensive backs, the Spartans now only have one senior in Jahz Watts, two Juniors (Reed, Nailor), five sophomores and seven freshmen in the group (all based on remaining eligibility).
We will have to wait and see whether Reed or Nailor consider leaving for the draft after this year (both have that kind of potential with a strong showing this season), but this is a talented, deep group that should continue to provide a cornerstone for Mel Tucker's offense for years to come.
Projected WR Depth Chart:
Starters - Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor, Tre Mosely
Two-Deep - Montorie Foster, Terry Lockett, Keon Coleman
Spot Contributors - Christian Fitzpatrick, Cade McDonald, Ian Stewart, Ricky White*
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