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Michigan State Football: 2021 Spartans Season Preview and Prediction

The Spartans rank No. 77 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2021
Jacub Panasiuk, Michigan State Spartans Football

Jacub Panasiuk and the Michigan State Spartans went 2-5 in head coach Mel Tucker's abbreviated 2020 debut

Mel Tucker was not the first choice of Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman to take over the Spartans football program after Mark Dantonio left. But Tucker is intent on proving that he was the right choice.

Tucker inherited a depleted Spartan program that had suffered under Dantonio's last several years of poor recruiting. To his credit, the Spartans' new man hit the ground running and went to work.

The Spartans didn't have a great 2020 season, finishing 2–5 in the abbreviated campaign. However, despite significant talent shortcomings, they still beat Michigan, and Tucker was able to show Spartan Nation and future recruits his plans for the substantial rebuild underway in East Lansing.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Michigan State's Offense for 2021

The Spartans welcome in Temple graduate transfer quarterback Anthony Russo. While the expectation is that he will earn the starting job in camp (or early in the season), incumbent Payton Thorne might enter camp as the listed starter. The Spartans staff wanted a different look, and Russo gives them that. Don't rule out underrated true freshman Hampton Fay, either. The Spartans love him, and many expect him to take the reins at some point.

The Spartans have one of the deepest wide receiver rooms in all of college football. Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed are the leaders. Nailor has mesmerizing speed, and Reed has all of the talent to play on Sunday. Don't overlook Tre Mosley, who has NFL ability that he has to grow into. Ricky White showed flashes of greatness last season and was vital in the win over the Wolverines.

The Spartans have a veteran offensive line, with all five starters returning. While they were not elite up front, they continued to improve throughout the season. The group should continue its upward trajectory under the coaching of Chris Kapilovic.

The Spartans upgraded their running back room with Kenneth Walker III, who transferred in January from Wake Forest. Also, they added Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III and still have a stable of backs who were on the roster in 2020.

The biggest weakness on the Michigan State offense is tight end. Adam Berghorst and Trent Gillison have the raw ability to become great but have not reached that potential. One name that stood out in the spring was early enrollee Kameron Allen.

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Previewing Michigan State's Defense for 2021

Tucker brought the 4-2-5 defense to East Lansing, a significant change. Despite losing Naquan Jones to the NFL, Michigan State returns everyone else from last season along the defensive line, including standout end Jacub Panasiuk. Drew Jordan is a graduate transfer who played well at Duke, and the Spartans should be solid on the front at the point of attack.

Linebacker is the biggest weakness on the entire two-deep. Tucker saw four linebackers leave town since last fall, but he did add two key transfers who could help. Tucker convinced Itayvion Brown to leave Minnesota and make the trip east, and Ben VanSumeren made the non-traditional move from Ann Arbor to East Lansing. Linebacker has multiple question marks, but it isn't void of talent.

In the defensive backfield, the Spartans are vulnerable, although Kalon Gervin appears to be a cornerback on an upward trajectory, and Xavier Henderson and Michael Dowell both have significant experience at safety. The Spartans expect at least one freshman defensive back to step up and earn a spot, but there could be more. The Spartans defense was nicknamed "The No-Fly Zone" for years. They aren't at that level entering camp, but the talent, while inexperienced, is there.

Previewing Michigan State's Specialists for 2021

The good news for Michigan State special teams is that Matt Coghlin is back. The sure-footed kicker is loved and trusted by his teammates and is a security blanket for a team that needs points as the defense searches for an identity at linebacker and defensive back.

After Coghlin, the Spartans have nothing but question marks. Tucker has plenty of speed to choose from on returns, but the Michigan State special teams are still a significant concern. The Spartans will have to address this in camp, but Tucker made it clear in the spring that his focus was on fixing these units.

Final Analysis

The timing of Dantonio's retirement handcuffed Tucker from doing much in the 2020 recruiting class. After COVID-19 hit and destroyed the spring and limited the fall, the Spartans head man did a remarkable job considering all the factors arrayed against him. In many ways, 2021 is the true Year One of the Tucker regime.

Tucker is a defensive coach by trade, but in 2021 his defense will struggle to find its identity. Fortunately for Tucker, the biggest recruiting win he has made since arriving in East Lansing was the hiring of Scottie Hazelton as his defensive coordinator. Hazelton is a defensive savant and will have the Spartans defense repaired in short order, but he can only work with what he has right now.

This season, the Spartans' offense is going to have to lead the way. A bowl berth would mark 2021 as a successful campaign.

National Ranking: 77

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