Jayden Reed knew if the Big Ten didn’t bring back football this fall, there was a chance he could go nearly two years without playing a game.
Instead, the Michigan State football wide receiver and his new coaching staff are back working to breathe new life into a stagnant offense in a hurry.
The Spartans resumed practicing last week after spending almost all of August in the weight room. Wednesday will be the next step, the final step: bringing new coach Mel Tucker’s vision to the field — full-contact and all.
“I mean the closer and closer we get to pads, we've been ramping it up a little bit more and a little bit more,” running back Elijah Collins said on a video call with reporters Monday night, “Just trying to really get ready for that first initial day will pads on. … Without pads and at this stage, we're really trying to be in the best condition as possible.
“What Coach Tuck hangs his hat on a lot is being relentless. And to be relentless, you gotta be in the best condition and the best shape possible and go out there every play and just go, like without a doubt and having that will and that burning passion to be able to just go. And so as a team, we've been doing that.”
Collins said he, Reed and their other teammates felt a jolt when they learned they wouldn’t have to wait until 2021 to play and give Tucker his MSU debut. And that reinvigorated a group that had gone back into training mode when the Big Ten opted to put the season on hold Aug. 11.
“Everybody’s walking around with a smile on their face. There’s a lot of energy going around the room,” Collins said. “Coach Tucker brought in a lot of energy. You definitely see that with the new team. Everybody’s lively, everybody’s bringing it every day.
“The energy is just totally different.”
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So much has changed since the Spartans last put on their full gear Dec. 27 in a Pinstripe Bowl win over Wake Forest, the final game of Mark Dantonio’s legendary MSU career.
Dantonio suddenly retired Feb. 4, followed by Tucker’s hiring eight days later. The new head coach did not retain any of Dantonio’s assistants on offense, opting to keep two coaches on defense (Mike Tressel and Ron Burton) and bringing a third, Harlon Barnett, back to the program.
Tucker and his new offensive assistants, led by coordinator Jay Johnson, hope Collins and Reed are two of the sorely needed playmakers who can solve the Spartans’ struggles to move the ball and score more points.
Johnson inherits a unit that has been in a steady decline since 2015, going from 29.8 points per game and making the College Football Playoff to averaging 18.7 points in 2018 and 22.4 in 2019. Last year’s offense ranked 105th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in scoring.
The Spartans’ yards per game also have steadily decreased in that time — from 385.5 yards a game in 2015 to 342.1 yards in 2018. Their 371.9 yards last season ranked 95th nationally.
The hope is that Reed, a 6-foot sophomore who sat out and took a redshirt last season after transferring to MSU from Western Michigan, and the other wide receivers can help by getting more separation from defensive backs. The Spartans also bring back sophomores Jalen Nailor and Tre Mosley in what might be their deepest position group.
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“I think that's probably one of the biggest things, speed right now. I believe we can attack them vertically,” said Reed, who was a Freshman All-American in 2018. “We already got good backs, so we can spread them out. We also have very talented, big strong receivers where we can take the top off a little bit. So I think vertically, that'll be a huge change from (last) year to (this) year.”
Injuries on the offensive line also led to MSU struggling to run the ball the past two seasons, including 127.2 yards last season. That was 113th in the FBS.
Collins thinks getting more from the passing game will aid the rushing attack.
“With Coach Johnson's offense …, he wants to move the ball, he wants to spread the ball around so that we can open up running lanes and have those running lanes like every team has,” said Collins, who had 988 yards on 222 carries in 2019. “He just wants like he really wants to get out there and make plays, regardless whether it may be with our feet or in the air catching, or even pass protection.”
The Spartans also need to find a new quarterback after the graduation departure of three-year starter Brian Lewerke, who left as MSU’s all-time leader in total yards (9,548 – 8,293 passing, 1,255 rushing).
Junior Rocky Lombardi has the most experience and is likely the front-runner with the truncated offseason, but Theo Day and Payton Thorne — Reed’s high school teammate — can begin to make up ground against live defenses in practice. Reed talked highly of Lombardi, calling him “super chill,” and spoke of his chemistry and relationship with Thorne that dates back to their middle school days in Naperville, Illinois.
However, Reed would not speculate on who might start at QB when MSU is scheduled to open Tucker’s tenure Oct. 24 against Rutgers.
“I couldn't even tell you who be the quarterback at the moment,” he said. “I honestly couldn't.”
It is simply one of those things that can only be determined when the pads come out and the hitting returns.
Collins said having an additional month to prepare helped MSU get healthy, including the veteran offensive linemen — who have combined for 125 starts. They missed a combined 42 games in 2019, opening with seven different offensive line combinations in 13 games.
“After such a long time, I'm really looking forward just to be able to get back into the physical side of football. But it was actually a benefit to a lot of people,” Collins said. “A lot of people were able to get fully healthy and honestly get bigger, faster and stronger. So I mean, it should be fun for everybody to get back out there and play football again, because there's only so much football you can actually play.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football on 'relentless' pursuit to find playmakers