Star running back Kenneth Walker III is off to the NFL, but that doesn’t mean Michigan State is going to shy away from running the football.
Even with quarterback Payton Thorne setting the school’s single-season record for passing touchdowns (27), the ground game is still essential for the Spartans in 2022.
“Our play-action game is a good amount of our offense,” Thorne said. “So, obviously, we’re still going to run the ball and we’re still going to look to be balanced.”
Of course, Walker cannot be replicated, but team’s using running back by committee is common in modern day football. For MSU, transfers Jarek Broussard and Jalen Berger are sure to be the headliners of that committee. Returning players such as Harold Joiner, Eli Collins, and Jordon Simmons also look to take part.
Walker also covered up a lot of flaws the Spartans had along the offensive line a year ago. While the unit got better over the course of the 2021 season, there is plenty for improvement up front.
“I think those guys do understand how important they are and how vital they are to not only our offense’s success but our whole team’s success,” Thorne said of his O-line. “They’ve taken that upon themselves and I think they’ve really worked hard this offseason, both physically and mentally, understanding what works, what doesn’t and the different looks we saw last year.”
Will the offensive line significantly improve this season? Do the running backs have enough wiggle to make plays even when things break down in the trenches?
Head coach Mel Tucker has a lot of trust in offensive line coach Chris Kapalovic. With an O-line that has lacked depth since Tucker’s tenure began, the head coach has faith that Kapalovic has begun to build that depth this offseason.
“He did a really nice job rotating those guys in. He’s a hell of a coach,” Tucker said at Big Ten Media Days. “In the spring, we were super thin. We did have to modify some practices. We actually had to move some walk-on defensive lineman to our offensive line. But, we did that knowing, come Fall camp, we would be healthy and we would be full strength. I feel like we’re really close to that now.
“It was uncomfortable and inconvenient, but in the long run I think it’s actually helped us.”
The Spartans return three offensive line starters from a year ago — Nick Samac, J.D. Duplain and Jarrett Horst — along with Matt Carrick and Spencer Brown, who each had important starts last year in the Peach Bowl. Washington State transfer Brian Greene will also be added to the mix, likely at guard.
During the spring, it was unclear what the Spartans’ rotation and positioning would look like up front for the season-opener on Sept. 2. Michigan State’s plethora of injuries led them to only having eight O-lineman dressed for the spring game. With players healthy and Greene arriving in June, the questions are beginning to be answered.
“Nick Samac, at center, is a guy who’s played a lot of football here. J.D. Duplain has played a lot. Jarrett Horst has a season under his belt, and then Spencer Brown got a start last year in the Peach Bowl and he played well,” Thorne said. “Matt Carrick is coming off injury but he’s played a lot of football. Those five, and then Brian Greene as well, a transfer, he’s played a lot of football. Those guys have a lot of experience, outside of maybe Spencer, but Spencer played still a decent amount.”
A good offensive line makes life easier for everyone. It turns good teams into great teams. Solid O-line play not only opens up the run game, but gives more time for the quarterback in the passing game. For a team with championship aspirations, it can be the difference between title contention and falling short.
“I think those guys understand that, as an offense, if they play well, we’re going to play well,” Thorne said. “I’m excited to watch them develop. I think we’re off to a good start, a really good start. I think those five are really going to gel – five, six, seven – whoever’s really getting in the mix are going to gel really well. It will be fun to see how it develops.”