Michigan State heads into 2022 as one of the top curiosities in college football, with the Spartans attempting to follow up on last year's surprising 11–2 season, No. 9 national ranking and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl victory, all of which allowed third-year coach Mel Tucker to gain traction as a rising force in the profession.
"Last year, we as a staff felt we got everything we could out of the roster," Tucker says.
Tucker is methodically upgrading Michigan State's depth, but offensive explosiveness will be down a notch with dynamic tailback Kenneth Walker III off to the NFL.
The Spartans are poised to be a factor in the Big Ten East but aren't likely to contend for the division title unless a slowly improving defense makes monstrous leaps.
Previewing Michigan State's Offense for 2022
Crafty quarterback Payton Thorne is an established winner, cool in the pocket, and he can run for tough yardage when necessary. His 27 touchdown passes a year ago set a school record, against 10 interceptions.
Jayden Reed, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2021, is a slick go-to target, especially in the red zone. Tough, reliable junior Tre Mosley has 63 career catches. Tight end transfer Daniel Barker from Illinois will add an element with 11 career TD receptions.
Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) will try to follow Walker's example as impact transfers at tailback. Broussard was Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2020 and rushed for 661 yards last season for the Buffaloes.
Led by left guard J.D. Duplain and center Nick Samac, the offensive line has proven performers with starting experience at all five positions, but there are questions about durability and individual reliability. O-line coach Chris Kapilovic successfully put puzzle pieces together last year and is likely to assemble a functional unit again. But Michigan State is a year or two away from ground-and-pound dominance.
Previewing Michigan State's Defense for 2022
Michigan State faced three of the top five passing attacks in the country last year (WKU, Ohio State, Purdue) and two more in the top 13 (Miami, Maryland). That opposition, and cohesion problems in the back seven, caused Michigan State to rank dead last in the country in passing yards allowed. Michigan State was a slightly less nauseating No. 10 in the Big Ten in yards allowed per pass attempt.
Georgia cornerback transfer Ameer Speed adds a talented 6'3" frame to a solid pool of cornerbacks, with senior safety Xavier Henderson providing stability. Better play is needed at the other safety position, and it's time for junior Angelo Grose to provide it. Look for overall connectedness to improve in the secondary.
Defensive tackle is a strength, with studs Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow providing a burly, athletic tag team.
Michigan State led the Big Ten in sacks but ranked No. 11 in third-down defense, two extremes that seem illogical together. Coaches want a more consistent pass rush but will likely need to do it by committee because there doesn't seem to be an individual standout. Jeff Pietrowski returns with 5.5 sacks at defensive end. Florida transfer Khris Bogle and former running back Brandon Wright are candidates to help.
Rugged sophomore Cal Haladay was honorable mention All-Big Ten at linebacker and clinched the Peach Bowl victory with a pick-6. But Haladay is not a cinch to start in 2022 for a corps that is emerging as a team strength. UNLV transfer Jacoby Windmon, Mississippi State transfer Aaron Brule and former nickel back Darius Snow impressed during spring practice. "We definitely have added some very, very good athletes on the defense," says Thorne. "I'll just leave it at that."
Michigan State ranked No. 72 in the nation in yards allowed per play and struggled to get off the field on third down, resulting in a ranking of No. 111 in total defense. Michigan State was one of only six teams in the nation to play more than 1,000 snaps on defense in 2021 and one of only two Power 5 teams in that category, along with Tennessee.
Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton needs to fix the pass defense and third-down efficiency, and he has taken over linebacking duties to help see it through.
Related: Big Ten 2022 All-Conference Team
Previewing Michigan State's Specialists for 2022
Bryce Baringer led the Big Ten in punting (48.4). But placekicker is a major question mark with fingers crossed for true freshman Jack Stone of Dallas. Reed is a major force on returns, as he averaged nearly 20 yards per punt return and took two to the house in 2021. He also averaged more than 23 yards per kickoff return.
Michigan State is strengthening its foundation through Tucker's ambitious national recruiting, aggressive approach to the transfer portal and a Saban-esque demand for physical bodies and details. The program is taking discernible steps forward, but the wins total is likely to decrease in 2022, partly because the Spartans are sure to miss Walker's game-changing explosiveness. "Ken is not a player that you're going to be able to replicate," says Thorne. "We are putting new stuff in. It'll be a little different this year, so it's our job to get better in every area."
It's up to the offensive line to pave a path for Walker's successors and give Thorne time to take the next step. The defense will be less susceptible to air strikes. It all adds up to another winning season as the Spartans gain traction for division title contention in the near future.
National Ranking: 14
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