Michigan State football's 2020 depth chart: Our final projection

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

How hard is projecting a college football team’s depth chart?

Not easy at all when there is a new coaching staff that didn’t have spring practices, a full slate of summer workouts and couldn’t work with players in full contact drills until almost October.

Such is the task new Michigan State coach Mel Tucker faces this season.

Michigan State heads out of the tunnel before the Spartans game against Indiana on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in East Lansing.

Tucker and his assistants must replace a number of starters on defense, find a starting quarterback and receivers on offense and determine the best and healthiest combination on the offensive line — all while installing new systems on both sides of the ball and game plan for the opener against Rutgers on Oct. 24. All with less than a month to do so.

No pressure.

Information has been limited, partly because of the pandemic and partly because Tucker and his aides are being guarded so opponents won’t know exactly how to prepare for the Spartans, who are coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons in which their offense struggled with inconsistency and injuries.

Expect things to remain in flux throughout the early part of the season as coaches experiment with and learn about their players.

But with such a tight window going into the opener at Spartan Stadium (noon/BTN), let’s give it the ol’ college try to figure out how the Spartans might line up.

Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi runs the offense against Ohio State during the second half of the 26-6 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in East Lansing.


The starter: Rocky Lombardi, jr.

The reserves: Theo Day, so.; Noah Kim, fr.; Payton Thorne, rs-fr.

Key losses: Brian Lewerke

Lombardi’s three starts in 2018 and experience as Brian Lewerke’s backup are critical considering the problems the pandemic created. Though he struggled outside a strong starting debut against Purdue, and went 2-1 in those starts, Lombardi’s size and knowledge give him a slight edge on Thorne and Day, who should get opportunities to seize the job if Lombardi doesn't take the next step Mark Dantonio’s staff felt he could make.


Running back 

The starter: Elijah Collins, so.

The reserves: Connor Heyward, jr.; Anthony Williams, so.; Brandon Wright, so.; Jordon Simmons, fr.; Donovan Eaglin, fr.; Andre Welch, sr.

Key losses: La’Darius Jefferson

Michigan State's Elijah Collins exits the tunnel before the Spartans game against Penn State on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Collins’ 988 yards rushing last season are the most by a returning Big Ten running back. He seized the starting job from Heyward two games into last season, and now that Heyward has returned after entering the transfer portal, the two should add a dynamic element in the passing and running game. Williams showed versatility in flexing out at receiver as a rookie, and Wright is a bigger between-the-tackles runner. Coaches have been impressed with the vision and patience of both Simmons and Eaglin.

[Michigan State football's crowded backfield could see four running backs in the rotation ]

Wide receiver

The starters: Jalen Nailor, rs-so., Jayden Reed, rs-so.; Tre Mosley, so.

The reserves: Laress Nelson, sr.; Javez Alexander, so.; Tre’Von Morgan, rs-fr.; Jahz Watts, jr.; Montorie Foster, fr.; Terry Lockett, fr.; Ian Stewart, fr.; Ricky White fr.; Cade McDonald, rs-fr.

Injured: C.J. Hayes, jr. (foot surgery)

Key losses: Darrell Stewart, Cody White, Julian Barnett, so. (moved to defense), Cam Chambers, Brandon Sowards

Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed eyes a pass during an August practice in East Lansing.

Nailor has flashed speed and big-play ability during his injury-plagued career. Reed could be among the breakout stars in the Big Ten after sitting out last year following his transfer from Western Michigan. Hayes and his father tweeted that he had a second foot surgery this year recently, which leaves his status for the shortened Big Ten-only season in limbo and dings the depth. Nelson, who also has shown flashes in his career, is the only other experienced option, though defensive back Julian Barnett could always play both ways after playing receiver in 2019. How MSU uses the 6-foot-7 Morgan and the talented group of freshmen will help offset the losses of Darrell Stewart and Cody White, among others.

Tight end 

The starter: Trenton Gillison, so.

The reserves: Matt Dotson, sr.; Adam Berghorst, rs-fr.; Parks Gissinger, so.; Tyler Hunt, jr.; Tommy Guajardo, fr.

Injured: Max Rosenthal, jr. (knee)

Key losses: Noah Davis

Michigan State tight end Trenton Gillison is defended by Ohio State safety Josh Proctor during the second half at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

Though Gillison made three starts, it wasn’t until the Pinstripe Bowl (four catches, 88 yards) when he showed how much he can add to the passing game. Dotson’s health after Achilles surgery remains iffy, and he must improve as a pass-catcher. His health and struggles could open the door for Berghorst, Gissinger or even Hunt, though all of them must show improved blocking from the position — especially with Rosenthal, the lead-blocking H-back, still working his way back.

He's the most gifted Michigan State football player you've never heard of ]

Offensive line

The starters: LT AJ Arcuri, sr.; LG J.D. Duplain, so. OR Luke Campbell, sr.; C Matt Allen, sr. OR Nick Samac, so.; RG Matt Carrick, jr.; RT Kevin Jarvis, jr.

The reserves: C/OG Blake Bueter, jr.; OT Devontae Dobbs, rs-fr.; OT Spencer Brown, rs-fr.; OT Mustafa Khaleefah, jr.; OL Jack Henrichs, jr.; C Jacob Isaia, so.; OG James Ohonba, so.; OL Damon Kaylor, rs-fr.; OL Dallas Fincher, fr.

Opted out: RT Jordan Reid, sr.; OT Justin Stevens, fr.

Key losses: Tyler Higby, Cole Chewins

Michigan State players, including Nick Samac (59), Devonte Dobbs, center, and Luke Campbell (62) stretch during the first practice of the season, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in East Lansing, Mich.

Though right tackle Jordan Reid, who opted out, was the only lineman to play every game the past two seasons, eight players return up front with starting experience and add versatility and depth. Arcuri, after he got healthy, took over at left tackle when Jarvis got hurt. Campbell also has experience playing tackle, and Jarvis could occupy one of the guard spots if there is a better fit on the edge. Keep an eye on Brown and Dobbs pushing to join the playing group. The battle at center between Allen and Samac also is one to watch.

What Michigan State football is doing to stop injury bug from biting O-line ... again ]

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker (middle) watches offensive lineman Spencer Brown (left) and defensive tackle Maverick Hansen battle during a drill Oct. 3, 2020 at Spartan Stadium.

Defensive end

The starters: Jacub Panasiuk, jr.; Drew Beesley, sr.

The reserves: Jack Camper, jr.; Michael Fletcher, rs-fr.; DeAri Todd, jr.; Zach Slade, so.; Kyle King, fr.; Avery Dunn, fr.; Jeff Pietrowski, fr. Jasiyah Robinson, fr.

Key losses: Kenny Willekes.

It was vital for Panasiuk to opt back in, because losing him would have left defensive line coach Ron Burton to replace starters at all four positions. Panasiuk must show he can get to the passer more often on his own, after the departures of Kenny Willekes and tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. Who starts opposite Jacub Panasiuk is unclear. Both Camper and Beesley got experience last year, but the raw tools and size of Fletcher, King and others could allow the youngsters to get snaps quickly.

Michigan State defensive tackle Naquan Jones (93) and Jacub Panasiuk (96) celebrate after a sack vs. Wake Forest during the second half Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, in New York.

Defensive tackle

The starters: Naquan Jones, sr., Jacob Slade so.

The reserves: Jalen Hunt, rs-fr.; Dashaun Mallory, so.; Maverick Hansen, rs-fr.; Chris Mayfield, fr.; Simeon Barrow, fr.; Evan Brunning, rs-fr.

Key losses: Raequan Williams, Mike Panasiuk

Jones and Slade were the Spartans’ No. 2 DT pairing last season and grew comfortable working with each other’s strengths. Both are candidates for breakout seasons, as are Hunt and Mallory, their likely backups. All four weigh more than 300 pounds. Coaches also have been impressed with Hansen, who is developing at 290 pounds after playing offensive line in high school.

Inside Michigan State football's new defense under Mel Tucker ]


The starters: Antjuan Simmons, sr.; Noah Harvey, jr.; Chase Kline, so.

The reserves: Jeslord Boateng, so.; Luke Fulton, rs-fr.; Marcel Lewis, rs-fr.; Cal Haladay, fr.; Devin Hightower, fr.; Cole DeMarzo, fr.; Charles Willekes, rs-fr.

Key losses: Joe Bachie, Tyriq Thompson, Brandon Bouyer-Randle, Edward Warinner

Michigan State's Antjuan Simmons, left, and Noah Harvey celebrate a stop during the first quarter on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Analylsis: Simmons is primed for an All-Big Ten season with his ability to pursue in the open field. Beyond him, there is minimal experience, though Harvey started the final five games last season and Kline showed some pass-rush promise while moving between defensive end and linebacker. Who fits in the middle remains a question with the departure of Joe Bachie. Fulton and Boateng could become rotational pieces.


The starters: Shakur Brown, so.; Julian Barnett, so.

The reserves: Kalon Gervin, so.; Dominique Long, sr.; Angelo Grose, fr.; Davion Williams, so.; Chris Jackson, so.

Key losses: Josiah Scott, Josh Butler

Michigan State Spartans' Dominique Long (9) tackles Tulsa Golden Hurricane's Keylon Stokes as Antjuan Simmons (34) pursues Friday, August, 30, 2019 at Spartan Stadium.

Brown emerged should have one of the starting jobs locked up after emerging as a starter in the second half of last season. The competition is fierce between Gervin (who got a start at Ohio State), Barnett (who transitions back to his natural position from receiver) and Long (a versatile and heady veteran with speed and tackling ability). Grose also could make a push for playing time, and both Williams and Jackson appear to be having strong preseason camps.

Michigan State football has slew of experienced coaches. How do they mesh after an odd offseason? ]


The starters: Xavier Henderson, jr.; Tre Person, sr.

The reserves: Michael Dowell, so.; Darius Snow, fr.; Emmanuel Flowers, jr.; Tate Hallock, rs-fr.; Jack Mandryk, jr.

Key losses: David Dowell

Michigan State's Xavier Henderson (3) and Michael Dowell (10) take the field during warmups at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing ahead of the Western Michigan game, Saturday, September 7, 2019.

Henderson finished second in tackles a year ago, and he should be a leader from his strong safety spot. Person’s coverage experience gives him an early edge for the free safety spot, but Michael Dowell and Snow are expected to be long-term contributors. Hallock played four games on special teams and could emerge as an option.

Special teams

Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin attempts a field goal against Indiana during the fourth quarter at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

The starters: K Matt Coghlin, sr.; P Mitchell Crawford, fr.; LS Jude Pedrozo, so.; KO Cole Hahn, jr.; PR Jayden Reed, rs-so.; KR Jalen Nailor, rs-so. OR KR Anthony Williams, so.

The reserves: K Jack Olsen, fr.; P Tyler Hunt, jr.; P Bryce Baringer, jr.; LS Parks Gissinger, so.; LS Bryce Eimer, fr.; KO Evan Morris, rs-fr.; KO Matt Coghlin, sr.; KO Tyler Hunt, jr.; PR Jalen Nailor;  PR Julian Barnett, so.; PR Angelo Grose, fr.; PR Laress Nelson, sr.; KR Jayden Reed, rs-so.; KR Julian Barnett, KR Angelo Grose, KR Andre Welch, sr.

Key losses: P Jake Hartbarger, P Jack Bouwmeester.

Coghlin’s struggles last year and Olsen’s arrival will give MSU options if the place-kicking falters again, and Morris could push Hahn for kickoff duties. MSU will begin the year with a new punter for the first time since 2015 — Australian rugby-style punter Crawford should get first shot. Reed expects to be a contributor on returns and showed explosiveness at WMU, and Nailor also provides burst and wiggle.

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.