How Michigan State football's offense plans to go from putrid to productive fast

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Chris Kapilovic did not mince words about Michigan State football’s 2020 offense.

At least, what little there was of it.

The Spartans' fewest points per game in 20 years. Zero rushing touchdowns by a running back. One of the nation’s worst attacks on the ground.

“Going through and watching the fall, it was tough because I've been doing this a long time,” Kapilovic, MSU's offensve line coach, said Friday. “And that was the least productive offense I've ever been a part of. And it was hard to digest.”

The mission this spring: Make up for lost time, starting Saturday when the Spartans put on the pads for the first time this spring.

Michigan State's offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic talks with players during the second quarter of the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic talks with players during the second quarter of the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

TRANSFER OF POWER: Why Mel Tucker's new-look roster isn't done evolving

SPRING INTO ACTION: Mel Tucker finally hosts first MSU spring practice; 'a different vibe'

PRO DAY: MSU welcomes back ex-players

Mel Tucker took over for Mark Dantonio in mid-February 2020 — a month later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down college sports, wiping out staff’s chances to work with players. Then, in early August, the Big Ten shuttered practice four days into preseason camp (before restarting a month later), again limiting the time Tucker and his assistants could spend on installing new schemes on offense and defense.

The result? A 2-5 season that had some offensive highs — 27 points in beating Michigan and 29 against Northwestern, both top-15 upsets — and many more lows.

MSU was outscored 125-19 in losses to Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State while ranking 116th out of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring (18.0) — its lowest output since 2000. The Spartans' offense was lowest scoring in the Big Ten by 2.1 points a game while ranking 109th nationally in total offense (330.3 yards).

“I'm sure there's some type of understanding or being realistic or practical about the situation,” Tucker said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, nobody really cares about that. It's really bottom-line production.”

Kapilovic, also the run-game coordinator, suffered through watching MSU finish 122nd nationally in rushing (91.4 yards) while struggling to generate much push up front.

Dec 12, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Ellis Brooks (13) attempts to tackle Michigan State Spartans running back Jordon Simmons (22) during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan State 39-24. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 12, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Ellis Brooks (13) attempts to tackle Michigan State Spartans running back Jordon Simmons (22) during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan State 39-24. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

“I felt like every week, we got better at something, even though we weren't winning and it didn't show that we were getting better,” senior running back Connor Heyward said Tuesday. “But when you watch the film, we weren't making the mistakes we were making Week 1. The Michigan game, we played complementary football, and you saw what we are capable of doing when we don't turn the ball over, when we don't have mental errors and when we're just locked in and we communicate.

“Our coaches have really emphasized communication and just being able to be accountable, because in football, communication is key. It doesn't matter if they know we're running the ball, you just got to be on the same page and they gotta stop it. I feel like we were just sometimes not on the same page.”

Kapilovic, upon rewatching the Spartans’ truncated seven-game season, saw the effort to get better.

“It wasn't from a lack of these kids trying,” he said. “I just think trying to put it all together in this this COVID era, with the lack of reps we had and things we couldn't do, it just didn't mesh all the time. You saw flashes, right? Northwestern just sticks out to me — we made a decision we were going to be physical, we were gonna run the ball, we were gonna control the clock and win this game. And we did it, the kids did it.

“We were inconsistent.”

MSU returns all five offensive line starters — left tackle A.J. Arcuri, left guard J.D. Duplain, center Nick Samac, right guard Matt Carrick and right tackle Kevin Jarvis. The Spartans will also have healthier versions of center Matt Allen and versatile lineman Blake Bueter, plus Luke Campbell, who missed all last season. Kapilovic also said he has seen improvement from young linemen Spencer Brown and James Ohonba.

But Tucker also brought in transfer tackle Jarrett Horst from Arkansas State, and that could add to the competition, with the flexibility to move Jarvis back inside to guard.

“Really, you're trying to find the five best guys and then plug them in where you can,” Kapilovic said. “Obviously, there's some guys that can't play tackle just because (of their) dimensions, but there's definitely some tackles that can move in to guard. So that's definitely a possibility. If we got three tackles that are three of the best five guys and we need to move on in and do that, we definitely can do that.”

The guys carrying the ball also need to produce.

MSU dipped into the transfer portal to add running back Kenneth Walker III, who ran for 579 yards and 13 touchdowns — tied for 10th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2020 — as a sophomore at Wake Forest. The 5-foot-10 back has 1,158 yards rushing and 17 TDs for his career.

Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker III carries the ball while N.C. State's Payton Wilson pursues in last season's game.
Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker III carries the ball while N.C. State's Payton Wilson pursues in last season's game.

The Spartans rushed for just two TDs all season — one from tight end Tyler Hunt and one from quarterback Payton Thorne. That comes after getting 16 combined TDs from running backs in 2018-19 combined.

The Spartans return Heyward, who began the year as the starter and led the team with 65 rushes (en route to 200 yards) and Jordon Simmons, who led the team with 219 yards (on 56 carries) in his first season. Elijah Collins, 2019's starter who barely missed 1,000 yards that season, also provides game experience despite picking up just 90 yards on 41 attempts in 2020.

FIXING THE OFFENSE: MSU must score — a lot more — to climb to top of Big Ten

THE ROSTER: Projecting MSU's depth chart before spring practice

Freshman Donovan Eaglin will get looks in spring practice as well before the arrival of Auburn transfer Harold Joiner III and incoming freshman Davion Primm this summer.

“Ken's a really good, quick-twitch guy, a strong back. But I think we all have different skill sets,” Heyward said. “Elijah, I feel like he's gotten his weight back up. Jordan's getting stronger, Donovan Eaglin, he's looking nice. Just everybody, I feel like with coach (Jason) Novak and his entire strength staff ..., they've invested all their time with us. It's not been easy, but I can definitely see it paying off for all of us.”

How quickly Kapilovic and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson can fix MSU’s run game — which hasn't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Jeremy Langford in 2014 — will dictate how quickly the Spartans can return to relevance in the Big Ten East.

And Kapilovic admits he does not have the patience to wait, particularly for his offensive line to develop.

“I want to happen now, I want to happen this season,” he said. “There's not a day in my life that I feel like it's OK because we got time to get these guys better. It's got to happen now. I coach with that sense of urgency, and I want our guys to train that way.”

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: How Michigan State football offense plans to rebound from putrid 2020