Impact Sports is kicking off their 2017 college football preview coverage this week. The Spartan Red Zone crew will give you a series of assessments on each position group for Michigan State football, starting with the wideouts and tight ends.
If there’s one thing Michigan State fans cannot wait to see, it’s strong quarterback play from projected starter Brian Lewerke. But who is he going to throw it to? Let’s take a dive and see.
The Spartans lost three major 2016 wideouts, including RJ Shelton and Monty Madaris, who graduated. The biggest long-term loss is would-be sophomore Donnie Corley, who was dismissed from the team in June following an alleged sexual assault. Still, lack of talent may not be a problem for this group, as the 2016 recruiting class was rich in receivers.
It all starts with sophomore Trishton Jackson. Jackson played nine games as a true freshman, catching five passes for 89 yards and one touchdown. He also had a team-leading eight receptions for 168 yards in the spring game. He plays far beyond his age and displayed exceptional chemistry with projected starting quarterback Brian Lewerke.
Jackson has the ability to be a No. 1 target. He’s got decent size at 6’1” and 179 pounds. He’s quick off cuts and knows when to turn for the ball. He’s got all the athleticism and talent needed to excel as Lewerke’s No. 1 option. The next step for Jackson, as MSU coach Mark Dantonio described, is to play with an edge. He needs to adopt the chip on the shoulder mentality that defines Spartan football.
But Jackson isn’t the only one that impressed in spring. Redshirt sophomore Cam Chambers also stood out as a major target. Both Chambers and Jackson were consistently on the same page as their signal caller, which is impressive considering their youth. Both figure to be top receivers heading into 2017.
Chambers is a dynamic athlete with a strong upside. He’s a big wideout at 6’3” and 211 pounds. Chambers moves well for his size, but may need to drop down to 195 pounds or so to be an elite receiver. In any case, he will see regular playing time and look to be a No. 2 target behind Jackson.
The Spartans will also need at least one more reliable option at wideout. But the identity of this third mystery man is pretty much anyone’s guess. One option is Felton Davis III, who is now the most experienced receiver on the team. If this junior is looking for breakout year in a Spartan uniform, this is just about as good of a chance as he’ll get after catching 12 passes for 150 yards last season. The depth chart is wide open.
Davis is a 6’4” 195-pound big target with strong hands. He won’t kill defenders with speed, but he does have the strength to manhandle scrawny defensive backs. This makes him an excellent option on third down and short yardage situations. Still, he needs to improve his route running before he takes the next step. It’s tough for Davis’ power to shine through if he can’t get open. This is exactly what has held him back thus far in his career.
One other man to watch out for is true freshman Hunter Rison, son of former Spartan great Andre Rison. Rison comes into the fall as MSU’s highest-ranked recruit, rated four of five stars by 24/7 Sports’ Composite rankings, and the ninth best player in Michigan. Rison’s quickness and athleticism make him not only a downfield threat but also an option on screens and jet sweeps. By the time he graduates, he may be an RJ Shelton 2.0.
Beyond Davis and Rison, there are a few names to watch out for. Redshirt sophomore Darrell Stewart Jr. and redshirt junior Brandon Sowards both have experience primarily on special teams, but may find action as a receiver. Stewart will have an opportunity to return kicks at the start of the season. Either one could be a surprise, but if either player sees extended action, the hope is that that decision is based on player merit and not injuries higher on the depth chart.
If MSU is going to have an effective passing game, it’s going to take more than a few good wideouts. Tight ends are an important part of any passing team. Unfortunately for Sparty, this may not sit too well after losing top two tight ends Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles to graduation.
Junior Matt Sokol figures to be MSU’s main tight end moving forward. He is the Spartans’ most experienced tight end, although that’s not saying much. He played in all 12 games last season, but mostly on special teams. On offense, he only had two catches for 26 yards.
It’s difficult to determine who exactly is next in line beyond Sokol. Redshirt freshman Noah Davis will look for regular playing time this season along with true freshmen Matt Dotson and Jack Camper. According to 24/7 Sports’ Composite rankings, the 6’5” Dotson was a four-star recruit while the Virginia native Camper earned three stars.
Dantonio loves using multiple tight ends, so it’s likely that each of these players will find their way on the field this season. MSU also has a history of producing excellent tight ends. It may be only a matter of time until one of these men turn into the next Price or Dion Sims. But for now, it’s difficult to say anything for sure, as each of these men simply have not seen many minutes.
MSU’s young receiving and tight ends corps has potential, but the problem is just that. Potential means nothing until it’s proven. They also lack experience, meaning that these positions truly are wild cards. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you get it. The most reasonable expectation is that this group will be decent, but not great.
WR Grade: B-
TE Grade: C