Predicting the Spartans' Week 1 Starters (including seven open position battles)
We're officially ONE WEEK away from the Green and White returning to the gridiron for the first game of the 2021 football season. This off-season has been unlike anything in recent memory, highlighted by the widely covered roster turnover with dozens of transfers in and out, and a new crop of freshmen arriving on campus.
With all those new faces comes the inevitable shakeup in the starting lineup, and while I expect the starters to be fluid throughout the season, the time has come to predict who we expect to take the field next Friday. Of the 22 starting slots, I see 15 of those spots secured, with the remaining seven still up for grabs. For those open spots, I'll share who I'm leaning towards and why.
Let's start with the defense. Up front on the ends of the defensive line, there's no reason to believe the starters won't be familiar faces in Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley. Aside from Panasiuk missing the last game of the year last year due to injury, this tandem started every game last season. After an underwhelming 2020 season, Panasiuk will look to return to 2019 form as a productive strong-side DE who is stout against the run and can create pressure on the QB at times. On the other side, Beesley is a scrappy end with a knack for creating chaos. Both of these guys will be looking to enhance their NFL resumé as they'll both be exhausting their remaining eligibility this season.
In the middle of the line, things are a bit more hairy, and that's where we run into our first two position battles. The catch is that those two spots are being competed for by three guys, and an injury is playing a role. If Jacob Slade were fully healthy, one of the spots would be his. Unfortunately, he came out of the tunnel at MSU's open practice on Monday in street clothes with a cast on his hand. It's yet to be seen whether he'll be available week 1, which leaves the two starting spots open for Jalen Hunt and Deshaun Mallory. I expect the three of these guys to rotate snaps relatively equally, with Slade more of a run-stopper and Hunt and Mallory both coming off years where they showed a lot of promise in a multitude of ways.
Behind the line, we run into one of the most intriguing position groups on the team in the linebackers. With Antjuan Simmons out and not a particularly encouraging crop of guys returning, Tucker & Co. hit the transfer portal hard at this spot, bringing in three potential contributors in Quavaris Crouch, Itayvion Brown, and Ben Vansumeren. While it sounds like Brown is focusing more on a pass-rushing role up front, Crouch and Vansumeren will both have their eyes set on starting spots, while competing with carryovers like Noah Harvey, Chase Kline and Cal Haladay. This group will certainly be a work in progress well into the season, but I expect Crouch and Harvey to start the season. Crouch brings an excess of athleticism with his background as a running back, while Harvey brings a level of experience and knowledge of the playbook that is hard to match.
Another group that needed major retooling this offseason were the cornerbacks. After the largest group of departures of any group this off-season, Harlon Barnett added five transfer corners and brought in a promising crop of freshmen as well. While I did expect Alabama transfer Ronald Williams to see the field this season, what I didn't expect was for him to take the reins as the #1 CB on this defense. By the sounds of it, that's exactly what he did, usurping previous top returning corner Kalon Gervin. Even more unexpected was the battle that has emerged between Gervin and Florida transfer Chester Kimbrough. At this point, signs are pointing toward Kimbrough getting the nod, but there will be a heavy rotation throughout the secondary as Barnett gets a live look at his new group.
Bringing up the rear of the defense are the safeties, and I'll include the nickle DB spot in this group as well. First and foremost, Xavier Henderson will be expected to lead this defense, and we can count on him to be on the field for almost every defensive snap. Next to him at free safety, expect Angelo Grose to find stability after rotating between roles a season ago. Finally, at the nickle spot I expect a strong competition between sophomore Darius Snow and redshirt junior Michael Dowell, with Dowell getting the first series based on experience.
In total, that leaves defensive coordinator Scottie Hazleton's defense looking like this:
On the offensive side, things are a bit more stable with the exception of the highly publicized and still unresolved quarterback battle.
Up front, things seem to be nailed down with graduate transfer Jarrett Horst taking over at left tackle and pushing senior AJ Arcuri to the right side. Arcuri's move to the right side frees up previous RT starter Kevin Jarvis to return to his natural position at right guard, next to Matt Allen at center and JD Duplain at left guard. This will be another group with a heavy rotation of 8-10 guys, and there is a wealth of experience returning. It's yet to be seen whether that experience manifests in an improvement in play, something the Spartans desperately need.
On the end of the line in one of Jay Johnson's favorite position, expect punter-turned-tight-end Tyler Hunt to get the nod ahead of a crop of other options eager to take his place. Don't be surprised if Johnson rotates upwards of three or four guys here throughout the year.
On the outside at wide receiver, the Spartans return perhaps the most talented position group anywhere on the team. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor both return after very promising seasons a year ago. They'll need an uptick in support from their QB, and a stronger running game would do wonders as they both pursue All-B1G honors this year. Outside of the top two, there's an opening as the third starting receiver, and this competition has been hotly contested all summer. While fan favorite true freshman Keon Coleman and Louisville transfer Christian Fitzpatrick both figure to be contributors in some way this year, this competition going into the year figures to come down to sophomores Tre Mosley and up-and-comer Montorie Foster. At this point, it feels like a toss-up, but I'll again lean toward Mosely solely based on experience.
But the real stories on the offense reside in the backfield. At running back, expect to see a promising rotation of three or four backs consistently seeing touches, led by Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III. Walker is one of the most exciting new additions to this roster, and with the support of improved line play could have a very strong season with plenty of eligibility remaining.
And finally... quarterback. This horse has been dead since the spring, but we'll keep beating it until kickoff. This remains a complete tossup in my mind, and I'm going to have to rely on my gut, and my gut tells me it'll be Payton Thorne. While Anthony Russo certainly has a wealth of experience, Thorne's running ability and short/mid-range touch present more available options for Jay Johnson's playcalling, and his familiarity with the program and his receivers can't be undervalued. Whoever plays under center will have to perform consistently to avoid the other guy getting a look, but next week in Evanston I think it'll be Thorne taking the first snaps.
So that rounds out Mel Tucker's week 1 starters. Here's the quick version, with my expected starters in bold:
QB - Thorne OR Russo
RB - Walker III
WR - Reed, Nailor, Mosley OR Foster
TE - Hunt
OL - Horst, Duplain, Allen, Jarvis, Arcuri
DE - Panasiuk, Beesley
DT - Hunt OR Mallory OR Slade
LB - Crouch, Harvey OR Kline OR Vansumeren OR Haladay
CB - Williams, Kimbrough OR Gervin
S - Henderson, Grose
Nickel - Dowell OR Snow
In just one short week, we'll see where I was right, which battles I misjudged, and maybe even a spot or two where I missed the mark entirely.
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