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Replacing explosiveness of Kenneth Walker, Jalen Nailor is tall task for Michigan State

The Spartans have depth, but who will emerge from the pack?

Just about everyone outside of the Skandalaris football building had low expectations for Michigan State football in 2021, but head coach Mel Tucker hit a home run in the transfer portal in tailback Kenneth Walker III, and the Spartans had a pair of explosive receivers in Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor.

Throw in a first-year starting quarterback who set a school record for passing touchdowns in a season and a defense that was stout against the run, and Michigan State wound up being the biggest surprise in college football a year ago.

However, two of the players that made up that explosive offensive trio – Walker and Nailor – are now on NFL rosters and turning heads in training camps.

How will Michigan State’s offense replace the explosiveness that those players provided?

“They were really good players, explosive guys,” Tucker said of Walker and Nailor. “But we have guys. Keon Coleman is a good player, potentially a good player. We’ll see how athletic he is. Tre Mosley is a very productive player, Germie Bernard is very explosive, and others. We’ve recruited well. I like what I saw in spring ball out of our guys. It just remains to be seen.”

The Spartans return Reed in 2022, and while his yards per catch were slightly lower than Nailor’s, the chemistry that Reed has with Thorne more than makes up for that. The fifth-year senior has taken on even more of a leadership role this offseason, but he noted that the whole wide receiver room is holding one another accountable.

“My biggest [focus] is bringing the young guys along,” Reed said. “Making sure they’ve got their head in the right mindset. I really don’t have to say much, to be honest with you. They push me. They tell me where I’m wrong. They coach me up. Everything is mutual, which is why I think we’re going to have a really strong receiving corps this year.”

Reed and Nailor formed a dynamic duo at receiver for the Spartans in 2021, but Reed believes Michigan State’s 2022 offense will feature more than a two-headed monster on the outside.

“The core is just going to be a core,” Reed said. “The ‘Big 3’, like they say in basketball, I think we’ll have a ‘Big 3’ in the receiving room. There’s not going to be any layoffs or anything. A guy coming in behind me, he’s going to produce just as well, if not better, than I’m producing. I think every guy in our receiving room has very good potential to be the best in the country.”

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Mosley has the most experience behind Reed, but the sophomore Coleman and true freshman Bernard have turned heads throughout the offseason. Reed said he’s been impressed by all the young Spartan receivers however.

“Keon Coleman, Antonio Gates, Germie Bernard, Tyrell Henry – all the young guys – Jaron Glover, everybody,” Reed said. “I think everybody has stood out to me so far.”

Michigan State has a wide array of options at both wide receiver and running back, but with what Walker was able to do a season ago, everyone knows the Spartans have an even bigger hole to fill at tailback.

“Obviously, you know, Ken won the ‘Player of the Year’ last year in the country, and he was the best running back in the country,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “That’s a guy that you can’t really replace what he did. He brought so much more to the table than just his rushing yards and his touchdowns. The way he worked the whole offseason, the kind of person he was, he’s not a replaceable guy.”

Unless someone bursts onto the scene in an unlikely way — the way Walker did in 2021 — Michigan State intends to replace his rushing production by committee.

“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 [Collins] is back, Jordan Simmons is back – those guys have all played football.”

Still, Tucker and his staff were aggressive at tailback in the transfer portal. Transfers Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) this offseason add even more depth to a room that has a lot of experience.

“We brought in two transfer running backs that are both very good players,” Thorne said. “We had good running backs that were behind Ken as well, that are developing and getting better.

The Spartans have plenty of depth at both tailback and wide receiver, but can that depth make up for that explosiveness that was provided by Walker and Nailor?

“We’re not going to leave it up to one guy to replace one guy,” Tucker said. “We’re going to do it as a team. Guys are going to have to step up, but I’m encouraged by what I see. I don’t stay awake at night thinking that we don’t have enough good players.”