Mel Tucker’s first news conference from Atlanta on Sunday to preview Michigan State football’s Peach Bowl was a flashback to the previously bygone Zoom Era.
And in it, the head coach updated a few of the personnel questions his 10th-ranked Spartans are dealing with in preparing to face No. 12 Pitt on Thursday (7 p.m./ESPN).
Tucker said left tackle Jarrett Horst is questionable, linebacker Quavaris Crouch and tight end Tyler Hunt are doubtful and safety Michael Dowell will sit out the game as he is in the transfer portal.
“We have a few guys that have decided not to play. I support that,” Tucker said. “And then we have some guys that are dealing with injuries that are either out or trying to play.”
MSU (10-2) also will be without star running back Kenneth Walker III, who decided to opt out and prepare for the NFL draft. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior, a unanimous first-team All-American and the Walter Camp and Doak Walker Award winner, finished the regular season second in the Football Bowl Subdivision and first among Power Five players with both 1,636 rushing yards and a 136.3 yards-per-game average, and his 18 rushing touchdowns ranked eighth in the country.
“It's hard to replace the guy like Ken. I mean, you really can't do that,” Tucker said of Walker, who remains on MSU’s bowl game roster that came out Sunday afternoon. “But we have other players obviously on our roster at that position that are going to be next man up, and they're gonna step up and get the job done. And we have a plan for that. And I feel really good about our run game.”
Perhaps the most significant update is on Horst, who started MSU’s first eight games but has not been in uniform since the 37-33 win over Michigan on Oct. 30. His blocking provided Walker an anchor on the left side of the line and helped keep quarterback Payton Thorne upright before Horst missed the final four games in which the Spartans went 2-2.
Crouch, who started MSU’s first nine games, missed two of the last three with a right knee injury and played sparingly against Ohio State with a brace on it. Hunt played the first 11 games but missed the Penn State game on Nov. 27 with an unspecified injury.
Tucker did not specify whether other starters or key players, such as wide receiver Jalen Nailor (right hand), cornerback Chuck Brantley (right shoulder) or defensive tackle Simeon Barrow (unspecified), would be available or if any other players planned to opt out to either prepare for the draft or over concerns with COVID-19 that forced all media availability for the Peach Bowl and other College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six games to go virtual last week.
“I think everyone else is trying to get to the game, trying to play,” Tucker said, adding the Spartans are “nearly at 100% vaccinated, and we haven't had any substantial issues during the season relative to COVID.
“And so far this week, we've been good. So I don't anticipate any disruptions for the rest of the week.”
The Spartans had seven players enter the NCAA transfer portal after the regular-season finale against Penn State. Dowell is the only one not in Atlanta, an MSU spokesman said, and the others are expected to be available for MSU. That group includes defensive backs C.J. Hayes and Emmanuel Flowers; defensive end Jack Camper; defensive tackle Tyson Watson; linebacker Cole DeMarzo; offensive lineman James Ohonba; wide receiver Ian Stewart; tight ends Trenton Gillison and Kameron Allen; and kicker Evan Johnson. All of them are on MSU’s bowl roster which was released Sunday afternoon, and Hayes previously said on Twitter he planned to play in the Peach Bowl.
“Those are individual decisions that players are making, and I'm supporting them on the decisions that they do make,” Tucker said. “And so I just told the guys at the very beginning, at the onset, ‘If you're in, you're in 100%. And if you're not in, let's communicate that. And then we'll support you. And that's the way we're handling everything.”
Those in the portal who are not on MSU’s bowl roster are Dowell, linebacker Chase Kline, cornerback Kalon Gervin, defensive end Alex Okelo, wide receiver Ricky White and safety Michael Gravely.
Coach Pat Narduzzi also has three players who opted out of the game so far for Pitt (11-2) to prepare for the NFL draft, including Heisman Trophy finalist and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winning quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Panthers had five players go into the portal since October and two of those since the end of the regular season.
Narduzzi said he has looked around the country at players who are in the portal and playing in a bowl game for the team they are preparing to leave, pointing to Florida quarterback Emory Jones starting for the Gators in a Gasparilla Bowl loss to Central Florida on Thursday.
“I think it sets a bad precedent,” Narduzzi said. “I watched that Florida game the other night and see that the starting quarterback is already in the portal. I'm like, what is going on here? I think the portal is bad enough as it is. … But I think it's a bad deal when you let guys go into portal still play for you. I just wonder what it's like in the locker room.
“You wonder why you lose like (Florida did) in a game which maybe you should win. So I think once you go in the portal, you're in the portal and you can stay in the portal.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football: Mel Tucker on Peach Bowl roster, availability