Michigan State football bold predictions: It'll be a merry-go-round at QB

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

A new coaching staff. A new quarterback. A rebuilt defense.

Not much is expected of Michigan State football in Mel Tucker’s debut season — at least outside the program.

But expectations and pressure are set high internally by Tucker, the former Colorado coach with a decade of NFL coaching experience. When the Spartans open Saturday against Rutgers we'll finally get to see what type of change that can bring to an MSU program that has been stuck in neutral the past two seasons.

Tucker talked all offseason about neutral thinking and being relentless, two emboldening philosophies players have bought into. So let’s get bold and give three predictions for the Spartans’ upcoming season:

MSU plays three QBs

Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi celebrates after a long run for a first down during the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in East Lansing.

Under ideal conditions, there would have been an open competition in spring practices and preseason camp. But the pandemic shutdown constricted all of that. Rocky Lombardi goes into the opener with starting experience, while Theo Day and Payton Thorne essentially are blank slates who need snaps to find out how they perform in a game. That will give those younger QBs a chance to surpass Lombardi, and the junior must elevate above that competition or lose that spot.

OL vastly improved

Michigan State's Elijah Collins, center, celebrates his touchdown with teammate during the first quarter on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

It will start with better health and a consistent playing group. But much like the injury-filled 2012 season turned into a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl for Tucker’s predecessor, Mark Dantonio, this year’s offensive linemen take the wealth of physical experience they gained the past two seasons and blend it with a fresh coaching voice of Chris Kapilovic to become a better threat to run the ball.

DL strong again

Michigan State senior defensive tackle Naquan Jones goes through a pass-rush drill during an August practice.

Losing three three-year starters in the front four — both defensive tackles and All-America defensive end Kenny Willekes — is big. Don’t forget many in 2017 thought the defense would suffer with a former walk-on starter (Willekes) after mass attrition on the edge and up front. This year is different, with Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade already established as DTs moving up a rung on the depth chart. Jacub Panasiuk at DE is perhaps the Big Ten’s best returning pass rusher, and Drew Beesley has game reps. But keep an eye on DE Michael Fletcher, who could become the key to Tucker’s pass rush in the future.

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