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B1G Thoughts: Five offseason questions for Michigan State

After a surprising 11-win season in 2021, Michigan State came back to earth in 2022. This spring, they must prove that 2022 was an outlier, and that they are closer to the 11-win team from 2021.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 season has come to an end. It was a great season that leaves many questions to be answered as we enter the 2023 offseason. Michigan won the Big Ten for the second year in a row, taking the crown from Ohio State.

Ohio State enters the new year a field goal away from a national championship appearance, but now has to replace C.J. Stroud. Will this be the first time in almost a decade that the best quarterback in the conference doesn’t wear scarlet and grey?

Nebraska, Purdue, and Wisconsin enter 2023 with new coaches while Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Indiana’s Tom Allen enter on the hot seat. Penn State has high expectations, Illinois will try to rebound from a late-season collapse, and Minnesota is trying to replace four of the best players in program history.

This is the final offseason before USC and UCLA enter the conference and the new TV deal starts. Teams must build a foundation that will last in the ever-changing landscape of college football. The 2023 offseason is essential for every team, so let’s dive in and see which five questions each team must answer before the 2023 season begins.

Can Mel Tucker develop a competent secondary?

Before becoming a head coach, Mel Tucker spent his career coaching defensive backs and as a defensive coordinator in college and the NFL. His experience as a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator makes it all the more confusing that he has not been able to develop a competent secondary at Michigan State.

In 2021 they were the worst pass defense in the country. They got better in 2022, finishing the year ranked 87th in the country. In the Big Ten, they ranked 13th in passing yards per game and 14th in interceptions. Despite the improvement, that is not nearly good enough to reach their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the playoffs.

It’s Tucker’s fourth season in East Lansing. It’s time for him to figure out this secondary or make massive staff changes on the defensive side of the ball.

What position will Jacoby Windmon play, and can they restock the defensive line?

Michigan State lost five defensive linemen in the transfer portal and one left for the NFL Draft. To replace them they brought in three transfers, including former top 50 defensive end Tunmise Adeleye from Texas A&M. They also brought in three four-star defensive linemen in the 2023 class, headlined by Bai Jobe, the 54th-best player in the country.

Due to some injuries and depth concerns, Jacoby Windmon played many of his snaps from the defensive line position, but he is probably best as an off-ball linebacker. They know Windmon can play defensive end if need be, but that ultimately hurts their defense by weakening the linebacking corp. Outside of the secondary, this may be the biggest question that needs to be answered this spring.

They’ve recruited the position well in the last two classes. This spring, they must develop their young talent and find a way to work in their transfers, or it will be a long season against Big Ten competition which is loaded with elite running back talent.

Who is the starting quarterback?

Payton Thorne has been the starting quarterback for the Spartans for the past two seasons. In 2021, with a potent running game led by Kenneth Walker III, Thorne was an above-average starter throwing for 3,232 yards and 27 touchdowns. Without Walker, he took a step back in 2022 with 2,679 yards and 19 touchdowns.

At best, Thorne is a game manager, he can get this offense into the right plays and doesn’t make many mistakes, but he is not a difference maker. The 2022 season was not enough for Thorne to keep the starting job without any competition from the rest of the quarterback room. Entering spring ball, Noah Kim, a three-star quarterback from the 2020 class, and Katin Houser, a four-star quarterback from the 2022 class, will compete to be the quarterback in the fall.

The Spartans know what they have in Thorne. It’s time for them to see if either Kim or Houser can raise their ceiling. After 2022, every spot should be up for grabs this spring, including the quarterback position.

How do they replace Jayden Reed?

Jayden Reed has arguably been Michigan States’ best wide receiver for the past two seasons after joining the program in 2020. Reed finished his career with 2,866 yards and 26 touchdowns and has contributed since his true freshman season. Despite a down year in 2022, Reed is well-regarded in the NFL circle and had a great performance at the NFL Combine.

Reed not being in the program will be a tough loss to recover from, but his replacement may already be on the roster. Sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman led the team in receiver with 798 yards and seven touchdowns. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Coleman has the prototypical No. 1 wide receiver size and can be a match-up nightmare. Without Reed on the roster, Coleman will be the offensive player the opposing team’s defense pays the most attention to in their game prep.

Coleman will need to showcase the ability to win when he’s the defensive focus. Outside of Coleman, no one else on the roster has produced so far in their career. This spring will be pivotal for Coleman’s development, and finding at least two more wide receivers to help whoever plays quarterback.

Can they develop key contributors from their most recent recruiting classes?

Michigan State has lived or died for the past two seasons on the transfer portal. In 2021 they hit big in the portal with Kenneth Walker III. Walker instantly became one of the best running backs in the country, leading Michigan State to an 11-2 season. On the back of Walker, Mel Tucker got a market-setting 10-year contract.

In 2022 the portal was not a success. Without Walker, the offense struggled, and the defense got marginally better but did not lead to wins. Michigan State finished the 2022 season 5-7 and didn’t qualify for a bowl game.

Entering his fourth season, Tucker must develop his players via high school recruiting. He accepted the job in late 2020 and was recruiting through the pandemic. Due to this, his first true recruiting class was the 2022 class. That class ranked 23rd in 247Sports Composite rankings with six four-star commitments, including quarterback Katin Houser from St. John Bosco in California. The recently signed 2023 class also ranked 23rd according to 247Sports with eight four-star commitments.

It may be too early for the 2023 recruiting class to contribute, but this is an essential spring for the 2022 class. Quarterback Katin Houser will have a chance to compete for the starting quarterback job, and defensive lineman Alex VanSumeran, the highest-rated recruit in the 2022 class, should factor in as the Spartans replace multiple defensive linemen.

Regardless of who sees the field, this spring is important for development. You can only live and die by the transfer portal for so long if you want to maintain success.