The Michigan State Spartans begin spring practice on Tuesday. After winning 11 games and finishing in the top 10 in 2021, expectations are high for Mel Tucker's club heading into the '22 campaign.
Related: Spring 2022 Big Ten Power Rankings
The Spartans lost some star power on offense, particularly with the departures of running back Kenneth Walker III and wider receiver Jalen Nailor. That said, they return the core of the team and a lot of veteran leadership from the 2021 squad that helped Tucker take home Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
5 Storylines to Watch During Michigan State's Spring Practice
1. Getting the offensive line in order
The Spartans suffered some significant losses on the offensive line, but they do return a couple of solid contributors in JD Duplain and center Nick Samac. Senior guard Matt Carrick will return from a leg injury, but his spring participation could be limited. We also saw Spencer Brown get his first start at offensive tackle in the Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh. The brightest star as far as returning offensive lineman is tackle Jarret Horst. Washington State transfer Brian Greene should be an impact player. He was one of the better guards in the Pac-12 during his time with the Cougars, but he won't be on campus for spring ball. We'll also be looking for highly touted 2021 prospect Geno VanDeMark to make a name for himself. There are some moving parts with this unit, and Tucker and his staff will need to test some different combinations during spring practice to see who fits best at each position. Despite the turnover, this still has a chance to be a position of strength for Michigan State in 2022.
2. The ongoing maturation of Payton Thorne
Thorne won the job as a sophomore in 2021 and went on to turn in one of the most productive and efficient seasons of any quarterback in the Big Ten. As mentioned, he won't have the luxury of Kenneth Walker III in the backfield to keep defenses honest early on, but that might not be a bad thing for his growth. If the Spartans are going to get to where they want to go in 2022, Thorne needs to take the next step as a signal-caller and be the type of quarterback who forces the issues and makes the plays that win games. How he handles the added responsibility will be something to keep an eye on in the spring.
3. Replacing Kenneth Walker III
Walker was an elite talent, and his production was the offensive catalyst for the run the Spartans had in 2021. Michigan State doesn't need anyone to try and replicate everything Walker did, they just need a player to step in and make sure there isn't a deep drop-off in production at the position. That might be done by a committee if a clear front-runner does not emerge during the spring. There are a couple of players on the roster who have logged some carries over the last couple of seasons, but the top candidate to fill the role is Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger – a top-150 recruit out of high school. Another transfer, Jarek Broussard from Colorado, also could factor.
4. A boost from the portal on defense
There are a couple of holes that need patching and position groups that need a boost on defense for the Spartans. We'll be looking at some transfers to establish themselves as impact players in that regard. Cornerback Ameer Speed, who transferred from Georgia, is likely to immediately step in as a starter. After that, the staff will be looking to linebackers Jacoby Windmon (UNLV) and Aaron Brule (Ole Miss) to hit the ground running. Florida State transfer Khris Bogle will add some depth to the defensive line rotation. The spring session will be instrumental for these players to get up to speed with their new system and mesh with their new teammates.
5. New faces on the coaching staff
Chemistry is not just something impacted by player turnover. New faces in the coaching ranks can have just as big of an impact, for better or worse, on a team's development throughout the year. The Spartans will have three new assistants, and two of them are on defense. Brandon T. Jordan and Marco Coleman will be heavily involved in coaching up the defensive front seven. Jordan comes with the reputation of being a pass-rushing guru, while Coleman will be asked to focus on the little things as far as fundamentals on the defensive line. Effrem Reed will step in as the new running backs coach. He'll be key in coaching up a unit that doesn't have a ton of reps and touches at the college level.
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— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.