Michigan State football's 5 new faces most likely to make an impact in 2024 season

Jonathan Smith’s second signing day as Michigan State football’s new head coach arrives Wednesday.

That's two more than Mel Tucker had when he was hired in 2020 after Mark Dantonio’s sudden retirement the day before the official period opened in February that year.

Four years later, Tucker — despite his firing last year — has set Smith up with several talented recruits from the past two cycles, most of whom have remained loyal to the Spartans going into the first spring of the leadership change. (Worth noting: The transfer portal reopens in April, and history shows more movement, both outbound and inbound, can be expected.)

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Smith has already showed a willingness and ability to mine the portal, largely pulling from his previous program at Oregon State to add instant talent upgrades in quarterback Aidan Chiles and offensive lineman Tanner Miller.

And Smith also kept many of the key recruiting pieces Tucker added the past two years, including blossoming linebacker Jordan Hall and defensive linemen Jalen Thompson, Bai Jobe and Andrew Depaepe from the 2023 class. Those former four-star prospects have stuck by the Spartans, along with 2022 recruits such as defensive backs Dillon Tatum and Jaden Mangham.

Smith inked 18 high school players in December and has at least four more three-star prospects prepared to sign letters of intent Wednesday: Defensive lineman Mikeshun Beelers from Chicago committed Monday and offensive lineman Kyler Brunan from Traverse City did so Tuesday, joining wide receiver Jaylan Brown from Texas and kicker Martin Connington from Idaho. The Spartans also hope to keep Portage Northern linebacker Jadyn Walker, who did not sign in the early period, from flipping his commitment to incoming Big Ten foe USC.

Smith’s first batch of recruits might find immediate playing time tough to come by despite the Spartans' 4-8 campaign in 2023. But as he showed in playing Chiles last year with Oregon State, he is a coach willing to get his freshmen on the field quickly. Here is a look at five of them who could make an immediate impact this fall for MSU.

WR Nick Marsh

River Rouge wide receiver Nick Marsh
River Rouge wide receiver Nick Marsh

After committing to Tucker, then decommitting, then recommitting, Marsh maintained his pledge to MSU and the new staff after the coaching change. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound four-star prospect from River Rouge enrolled in January, and he brings a fluid route-running ability and the type of college-ready body that can contribute on the outside and help offset the graduation departure of Tre Mosley.

Still, Marsh will fight for playing time and targets. The Spartans bring back veterans Montorie Foster and Alante Brown, plus Smith got Jaron Glover to stay after entering the transfer portal. Glover and fellow third-year sophomore Antonio Gates Jr. were part of the 2022 class that was heavy on receiving talent before losing Germie Bernard and Tyrell Henry to transfers. Their departures give Marsh, along with 2023 signees Aziah Johnson and Jaelen Smith, opportunities to work their way into the playing group, though, and work from scratch with Chiles and the overhauled quarterback room.

LB Brady Pretzlaff

Brady Pretzlaff tries to swat a pass during Gaylord's 37-16 victory over Marquette in the team's third annual Valor Game on Saturday, Sept. 9 in Gaylord, Mich.
Brady Pretzlaff tries to swat a pass during Gaylord's 37-16 victory over Marquette in the team's third annual Valor Game on Saturday, Sept. 9 in Gaylord, Mich.

New defensive coordinator Joe Rossi made prying Pretzlaff away from his commitment to Minnesota a priority, and the Gaylord native followed his primary recruiter with the Golden Gophers to East Lansing. Like Marsh, the 6-3, 230-pound three-star prospect enrolled early and established Smith’s view of building a border around the state for talent. Diagnosing opposing offenses and pursuing in run defense are advanced traits Pretzlaff arrived with in January. Adding weight and building strength during winter workouts are his keys to contributing quickly.

The graduation loss of Aaron Brule and departure to the NFL draft of Jacoby Windmon opens up an opportunity for Pretzlaff to integrate himself into Rossi’s defense in much the same way Hall did last fall as a true freshman with the previous staff. Starter Cal Haladay remains the lynchpin at linebacker next to Hall, and Pretzlaff appears headed for a battle for snaps with returning veterans Darius Snow, Aaron Alexander and Ma’a Gaoteote. Those roles also will be dependent on the scheme Rossi and Smith agree to run as well.

CB Justin Denson

Justin Denson, La Salle football
Justin Denson, La Salle football

Among the most coveted signees in December — he turned down Alabama, Florida and Oklahoma, among others — Denson arrived in January after playing in the All-American Bowl and seeks to join the competition for snaps at an already-crowded cornerback position. The 6-2, 190-pound Rhode Island native brings plenty of length, strength and aggressiveness on the edge but also has the size to slide inside as a nickel back early in his college career or potentially shift to safety if he bulks up.

The path to playing time, though, won’t be easy with the returning depth from Tucker’s most recent classes. Tatum returns at cornerback as a third-year junior, and he was joined as a starter in 2023 by freshman Chance Rucker. Charles Brantley, a starter most of his MSU career, also returns after testing the transfer portal for the second time in a year and sitting out injured most of last fall, and veteran backup Marqui Lowery also is back. Angelo Grose is back after playing nickel last season (but his backup, Chester Kimbrough, saw his eligibility expire). MSU also used Cincinnati transfer Armorion Smith last year before he suffered an injury, and youngsters such as Caleb Coley and Ade Willie also are looking for larger roles at multiple secondary spots.

DE Kekai Burnett

Honolulu Punahou defensive end Kekai Burnett
Honolulu Punahou defensive end Kekai Burnett

Like Denson, Burnett has a boatload of young talent to compete with. Thompson emerged as a starter late last season as a true freshman, while Jobe and Depaepe retained their redshirts. Ken Talley, who was a late addition to the 2022 class, also flashed talent and showed offseason leadership and buy-in to the new staff. And veterans Khris Bogle and Avery Dunn return with quality experience.

But the Spartans lost talented Zion Young to the portal and graduated Brandon Wright, which will give the 6-3, 235-pound Burnett a chance to compete once he arrives. A former Oregon State commit who followed Smith and new MSU defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa, the three-star prospect from Honolulu has basketball-player quickness coming off the edge to get into the backfield and will need to add strength to shed blockers in college and continue to do so.

OT Rustin Young

Honolulu St. Louis offensive lineman Rustin Young
Honolulu St. Louis offensive lineman Rustin Young

Seldomly do true freshmen, even the most heralded of them, find their way into offensive line rotations. Young arrives with Burnett from Honolulu as a four-star prospect who originally committed to Smith and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik while they were at OSU. It will be imperative for the 6-5, 275-pound Young to add mass quickly, though, for his powerful protection presence to make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.

Still, the Spartans lost starting right tackle Spencer Brown and 2023 junior college addition Keyshawn Blackstock to transfers. Brandon Baldwin returns as starting left tackle, and Ethan Boyd is back after testing the portal and returning to MSU following a season in which he emerged at right tackle. Stanton Ramil, a four-star 2023 recruit, expects to return from an injury that kept him out last season, and Ashton Lepo and Braden Miller also got some experience on the outside as redshirt freshmen in the fall.

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him @chrissolari.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football's 5 new faces most likely to make an impact in 2024 season