Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker knows the importance of having "difference-makers" on a college football team.
Against equal competition in the Big Ten and high-caliber programs around the country, games are often decided by only a handful of plays, and difference-making players are the ones who impact those handful of plays.
The Spartans had a couple of those guys in 2021, but none of them stood out as much as tailback Kenneth Walker III, who had one of the most memorable seasons in school history.
Walker is off to the NFL, but MSU has a guy who could be the next great Spartan "difference-maker" — senior wide receiver Jayden Reed.
"A guy like that, what's he do for your offense? High-level production," Tucker said of Reed this week at Big Ten Media Days."I believe you've got to have three to four difference-makers on each side of the ball if you want to be really good, and he's a difference maker for us on offense."
Reed led Michigan State in receptions (59), receiving yards (1,026) and receiving touchdowns (10) in 2021. He's been the favorite target of returning starting quarterback Payton Thorne since the pair played high school ball together in Illinois.
"He is a tremendous player," Tucker said. "First and foremost, he is a great person. He's a great guy. He's a great teammate. He's fun to coach. He's always got a smile on his face, and he can do a lot for us."
Reed does more than just impact the game as a receiving threat, however. The senior was a weapon for the Spartans in the return game, with two punt returns for touchdowns and a total of 238 punt return yards on 12 attempts. He added 376 yards on 16 kick returns a year ago.
"You mentioned what he can do on special teams as a return guy. He's elite," Tucker said.
This week, Reed was one of 52 players named to the preseason watchlist for the 2022 Paul Hornburg Award, given annually to college football's most versatile player. With his skills as a receiver and a returner, Reed has to be viewed as one of the favorites to win the award this season.
In addition to his total production and numbers, Reed seemed to make his biggest plays in the biggest moments for Michigan State last season.
With the Spartans trailing Nebraska, 20-13, with less than four minutes to go, Reed returned a punt 63 yards for a score to help tie the game. Michigan State would go on to win in overtime.
Against rival Michigan, with MSU trailing by 16 points late in the third quarter and facing 4th-and-four, Reed made a contested grab up the right sideline for a 28-yard gain. That set up the touchdown that would ultimately spark the Spartans' 37-33 comeback victory over the Wolverines.
Against Penn State, in the middle of a blizzard, with Michigan State up 23-20 with five minutes left and trying to put the Nittany Lions away, the Spartans faced 4th-and-15. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson went right back to that same play with Reed up the right sideline, and the senior delivered another spectacular catch to seal victory for MSU.
Finally, in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, with the Spartans trailing 21-16 and under three minutes left, you guessed it — Thorne to Reed, up the right sideline, contested catch, touchdown Michigan State. Ball game.
"He is outstanding at contested throws," Tucker said. "You get the ball, just get it to him, he's going to find a way to come down with it."
Time and again, Michigan State when to Jayden Reed in the biggest moments, and the playmaker delivered.
"He's very competitive. He's hypercompetitive, and he practices extremely hard," Tucker said. "That's why he's always getting better. He's a great leader for us. He leads by example, but he's also a confront-and-demand guy."
Replacing a playmaker like Walker is a tall task, and it's a lot to ask for any one player to assume that role. But Reed won't shy away from the spotlight in 2022, and we already know he has the gumption to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments for Michigan State.