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With fall camp kicking off today for Michigan State football, the Spartans have a few questions to answer between now and the Sept. 2 season-opener against Western Michigan.

1. Who will MSU start at linebacker?

More importantly, what will the Spartans rotation look like at the position? Switching to a 4-2-5 base defense has had its growing pains.

The linebacker position has plenty of talent, but defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton needs to find who fits with each other.

Cal Haladay emerged last year and became the team’s second-leading tackler as a redshirt freshman. Michigan State also used the transfer portal to bring in Jacoby Windmon (UNLV) and Aaron Brule (Mississippi State). Windmon was an All-Mountain West linebacker in 2021, finishing with 119 total tackles. Brule, meanwhile, had 139 career tackles in three seasons at Mississippi State.

There’s also safety-turned-linebacker Darius Snow, the third-leading tackler for MSU last season. Tucker expects Snow to play a hybrid role this season, as the coaching staff wants to do whatever they can to get his speed on the field.

“I believe that’s a natural position for him,” Tucker said of Snow’s position switch. “He’s a big guy, he’s a physical player and he does have versatility. There still may be a role for him in our secondary, and some packages, because of his versatility, but he has a nose for the ball and, obviously, he has the pedigree.

“He looked really good during the spring, and so we feel like that’s good for him here and beyond. We really feel like that’s his future.”

There is plenty of talent in the linebacker room for Michigan State, but how will they get it all on the field?

2. What will MSU’s running back rotation look like?

Similar to the linebackers, Michigan State’s log-jammed running backs group is a good problem to have.

Transfers Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) seemed to be penciled in as starters, but will returning players get some time? Fifth-year senior Harold Joiner came in for some packages last season, maybe he’ll be used in a similar way, or maybe he’ll be moved to a Connor Heyward-type role?

After battling through injuries last year, fifth-year senior Elijah Collins seems to be fully healthy again. Can he get back to what he once was? Davion Primm gained some steam in the spring with his efforts, will we see him out on the field?

According to Tucker, all options are still on the table.

“Davion Primm did a nice job in the spring, now we’ve got to take it to fall camp,” Tucker said. “Harold Joiner is back, Elijah is back, Jordan Simmons is back – those guys have all played football. And then the two transfer guys, Broussard and Berger, those guys have played a lot of football, they’re good players.”

Options are a great thing to have, but ideally a couple of these guys will separate themselves from the rest. Who will those guys be? We may not even know until after fall camp.

3. Who will emerge as the Spartans’ backup quarterback?

This probably the biggest unknown of any of these questions so far.

Injuries happen in sports. That’s a sad reality. Michigan State was fortunate to have starter Payton Thorne healthy throughout the 2021 season, but head coach Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson acknowledged this spring that getting through an entire season with one starting quarterback is a rarity.

In the unfortunate event that Thorne goes down, who will Tucker and Johnson turn to? Michigan State fans might not discover that answer until the Spartans find themselves late in a game with a comfortable lead.

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Redshirt sophomore Noah Kim has been with the program the longest of the backup options, redshirt freshman Hamp Fay made strides of improvement in the spring, and true freshman Katin Houser was a top QB in his class and may have the most raw talent of the trio.

In an ideal situation, Michigan State won’t have to turn to a backup quarterback in any crucial moments this season, but all three of the guys mentioned above should all be prepared for that possibility.

4. Will the Spartans respond to leadership of Thorne, Reed?

Head coach Mel Tucker talked a lot about this subject at Big Ten Media Days, specifically about quarterback Payton Thorne and wide receiver Jayden Reed.

“They want more,” Tucker said of his quarterback and leading receiver. “So, how can those guys lead in a way to just bring their teammates along?”

Tucker has reiterated time and again that having a player-led team is stronger than a coach-led team.

“Payton’s really smart. He’s a coach’s kid, so he knows how things should really be done,” Tucker said. “So, it’s really in the details. You know, if we’re going to run sprints and everyone’s toes are supposed to be behind the line and not on the line, he sees a guy that’s toe is on the line or over the line, he’s going to stop the drill and tell the guy, ‘Get your foot back’. That seems like something that seems insignificant, but somebody has got to do that. Somebody’s got to make that correction, somebody’s got to confront that. And so, if it’s not one of the players, it’s going to be a coach. And once you get the players doing it, especially the quarterback, now you’re cooking with gas.”

Leadership has always come naturally to Thorne, and he’s applied that more than ever this offseason.

“I’ve always felt that I’ve had the ability to lead. I’ve always been told that from the time I was young,” Thorne said. “It wasn’t necessarily me making a decision, ‘Okay, I’m going to lead.’ I felt like I had done that, it’s just you do it in different stages. When you’re a freshman, you’re the fourth-string quarterback. You’re not going to be leading the offense out there, you’re leading your unit, you’re leading the scout team, you’re leading your class, and stuff like that. So, it may just look different at different times, but in terms of leadership, it’s always a work in progress. You’re always learning stuff, and there’s not one moment in time where I was like, ‘Okay, now I’m going to lead.’ You lead through the whole time.”

Tucker noted the importance of a vocal leader like Thorne. The head coach bucked at the idea that “leading by example” was an acceptable alternative.

“Leading by example is really not leading,” Tucker said. “For him to step up and get out of his comfort zone, and really make a conscious effort and be intentional about coaching his teammates up is a huge step in the right direction. You really need that at the quarterback position.”

Thorne agreed with his head coach.

“I look back on my whole career, just any sport, and I’ve never been afraid to speak up,” the quarterback said. “I’ve never been a guy who anyone’s ever said, ‘Yeah, he does a great job leading by example.’ I’ve always been willing to vocalize how I feel.

“I’ve never believed that leading by example is a thing. That’s just the price of admission. That’s just doing what you’re supposed to do. Even if you work your tail off, that’s just what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to work hard. In a good program, that’s what everybody does.

“Bringing guys with you – that’s leadership. Reaching back and saying, ‘Come on. Let’s go’ and challenging guys. In order to do that, you’ve got to know something about the guy that you’re playing with. If you don’t know anything about a guy and you want to try to yell at him, he’s not going to accept it real well. But, if you’ve built a relationship with guys and they can look at you and know its coming from a place of, ‘Hey, I want you to be better’ or ‘I want us to be better as a team’, then you can do that. I think it all comes down to relationships.”

Thorne and Reed have the talent, and it sounds like their leadership is taking root. How far can that carry the Spartans in 2022?

The Spartans’ season-opener on Sept. 2 is approaching quickly. With the start of a new season comes new challenges, and Michigan State has higher expectations heading into 2022 than it did a year ago. These questions don’t necessarily need to be answered by the time Western Michigan makes its way to East Lansing, but the staff would certainly prefer to have them answered by then.

Twitter: @a3danm | @mlounsberry_SI