Michigan State football prepares to celebrate seniors who won't, and might, return

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EAST LANSING — Drew Beesley knew Saturday would be his last game at Spartan Stadium, the defensive end’s sixth year of eligibility provided by the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver coming to an end.

Connor Heyward could have done what Beesley did and come back for Michigan State football in 2022. But the fifth-year tight end decided to join those who will be honored during senior day when the No. 13 Spartans host Penn State in the regular-season finale.

“This is my last home game in The Woodshed. It's bittersweet,” Heyward said Tuesday. “I've been in college for five years now. I think it's time for me to move on.”

Heyward almost left MSU following the 2019 season and entered the NCAA transfer portal, but he chose to return after Mel Tucker took over for Mark Dantonio in February 2020. A running back and kick returner earlier in his career, Heyward moved to tight end this season and has blossomed as a blocker and pass catcher.

Michigan State running back Connor Heyward (11) leaps over Purdue safety Marvin Grant (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.
Michigan State running back Connor Heyward (11) leaps over Purdue safety Marvin Grant (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.

The 6-foot, 230-pound native of Duluth, Georgia, is fourth on the Spartans with 26 catches for 229 yards with a touchdown this season. His invitation to the Senior Bowl became public Monday, but Heyward said he got the notice about two or three weeks ago. He waited to decide about coming back to MSU or pursuing his future in the NFL, where his father Craig played 11 seasons and his brother Cam is currently a defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I think I've done a lot for this program, and it's been an amazing roller coaster — the highs and lows, everything, has just been amazing,” Heyward said. “I think I'm ready for the next chapter of my life.”

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There are 10 Spartans who don’t have a choice to make as their eligibility expires after this season, making Saturday against the Nittany Lions (3:30 p.m./ABC) their last game at Spartan Stadium as well.

Along with Beesley, other players leaving MSU after six seasons are center Matt Allen, left tackle AJ Arcuri, offensive lineman Luke Campbell, defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and kicker Matt Coghlin. Four transfers who arrived in the offseason — defensive end Drew Jordan, defensive back Spencer Rowland, quarterback Anthony Russo and punter Cody Waddell — also are out of eligibility following the Spartans’ bowl game.

Beesley said having that many older veterans aided MSU in making a rapid turnaround from last season’s 2-5 record in coach Mel Tucker’s first year.

“I think it helped out a little bit, especially with all the freshmen and transfers coming in, the guys have gotten really a taste of what Spartan football is all about. I feel like both the fifth- and sixth-year guys did a tremendous job of helping the new guys understand our culture and the expectations around here,” Beesley said. “And I feel like the new guys really adapted well to that, and they'll continue to install that in the new guys next season and for years to come.”

Tucker said it is unclear how many players with remaining eligibility MSU will lose after this season, be they fifth-year seniors who don't want to take the extra year of eligibility or other underclassmen who might opt into the NFL draft.

"It's very fluid, especially now with the COVID year and, ‘Am I gonna come out or stay?’ and things like that," he said. "So it's up to the players they want to participate. It's fluid — a guy may participate and then come back."

[ Mel Tucker making Michigan State football 'wide open' to NFL scouts to evaluate players ]

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) gets hit by Michigan State Spartans defensive end Drew Beesley (86) as he scrambles out of the pocket during the third quarter of the NCAA football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) gets hit by Michigan State Spartans defensive end Drew Beesley (86) as he scrambles out of the pocket during the third quarter of the NCAA football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

First, though, the Spartans (9-2, 7-2 Big Ten) want to enhance their bowl profile with a win over the Nittany Lions (7-4, 4-4) following a 56-7 blowout at No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday that knocked them out of the top 10. And those veterans are hoping to make MSU’s second New Year’s Six bowl, the first since the Cotton Bowl Classic after the 2014 season.

“We have significant amount of seniors, some of whom have been here for six years. And we want to make it a special day for them,” Tucker said. “We have an opportunity to win 10 games and to go undefeated in The Woodshed in front of our fans, which I think is significant accomplishment.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football to celebrate 'COVID' seniors