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Michigan State HC Jonathan Smith seemingly unbothered by portal departures, eyes portal additions

On3 imageby:Jim Comparoni04/22/24

JimComparoni

East Lansing, Mich.Michigan State’s Jonathan Smith didn’t act or react last weekend like a head coach who just lost 25 percent of his returning All-Big Ten players from a year ago. 

On Saturday, two days after honorable mention All-Big Ten defensive tackle Simeon Barrow re-entered the transfer portal – presumably gone for good this time –  Smith was asked indirectly about life as a college football coach when a player suddenly opts away from the team, just before the end of the spring practice season. 

“Roster is always going to be fluid,” Smith said, with a slight smile and not a hint of resentment. “So we’ll see how the dust settles here in a week and a half. We are always going to be looking to add quality to our roster, really at all positions.”

On Monday, second-string wide receiver Antonio Gates Jr. entered the transfer portal. Gates had five catches last year and was credited by coaches last week with having a productive, encouraging spring.

Michigan State had Montorie Foster, Jaron Glover and Aziah Johnson as the three starting receivers on Saturday. Johnson redshirted last year and wasn’t projected by SpartanMag to be among the starting contenders, and it’s unclear if the initial lineup on Saturday indeed reflected the official depth chart. The other 10 starters on Saturday seemed to reflect presumptive starters at their respective positions.

True freshman Nick Marsh and redshirt freshman Jaelen Smith began the second unit’s initial drive in a two-WR formation. Alante Brown was the next receiver off the bench. Jaelen Smith redshirted last year. 

Gates wasn’t with the first, second or third unit at wide receiver for the opening three series of the scrimmage. But he did participate in pre-scrimmage drills. It’s unclear whether Gates was battling any physical ailments.

Wide receiver is not considered an area of strength or depth for the Spartans, although Foster is a proven player, while Glover and Marsh appear to be emerging standouts. There was hope that Gates could come on as a key contributor.

Michigan State has been busy in pursuit of at least one wide receiver in the transfer portal this spring. With Gates in the portal, that business will likely increase.

On Sunday, Michigan State added a transfer portal commitment from defensive end Anthony Jones, who played last fall at Indiana and redshirted in 2022 at Oregon. At Indiana, he was coached by Chad Wilt, who is now pass rush coach for the Spartans.  When Jones was at Oregon, Demetrice Martin was on staff for the Ducks. Martin is now cornerbacks coach at Michigan State. Smith and his staff had deep intel on Jones when he entered the portal, and went after him quickly. 

Aa for Barrow, he was one of only four returning Michigan State players who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year. No Spartan made the first-, second-, or third-team All-Big Ten squad for a team which went 4-8 in a tumultuous season which saw former head coach Mel Tucker getting fired in September. 

Barrow plays a position that is in high-demand across college football – defensive tackle. LSU head coach Brian Kelly said publicly at the conclusion of spring practice that his team needed defensive tackles, and that several teams in the SEC did as well. The SEC has a rule that SEC teams can’t poach players out of the portal from other SEC teams during the spring portal window. Naturally, SEC eyes looked north. Not surprisingly, LSU has come after Barrow, a native of Grovetown, Ga.

Barrow didn’t have the rise to major stardom last year that some expected. He has battled bangs, bumps and injuries in each of the past two seasons, and played through pain, largely because Michigan State was so thin at the position. He entered the portal late last season, then decided to come back, thanks in part to a conversation with Tom Izzo. Then he entered again after the season, then decided to return. Now he’s entering again. This time, Michigan State has scrubbed his name from the official on-line roster.

Barrow ended last season battling physical ailments. He was held out of contact drills this spring. He wore a jersey, but no helmet or pads this spring. 

Now, the all-important defensive tackle picture must go on without Barrow. Redshirt-junior Derrick Harmon returns as an All-Big Ten candidate and arguably the most valuable player on the defense. Sixth-year senior Maverick Hansen is a reliable veteran. But that’s all, in terms of returning, established, proven talent at the position.

Georgia Tech transfer D’Quan Douse is a welcomed, important decision. He had 20 starts for the Yellow Jackets and looked good on Saturday.

Former four-star recruit Alex VanSumeren missed last fall with a leg injury, and was held out of pads this spring. His spirits appear to be good. There is no official word from VanSumeren or the coaches about his projected availability for the fall. He watched Saturday’s scrimmage from the sidelines while wearing his No. 91 jersey.

VanSumeren played four games as a true freshman in 2022 (21 snaps, three tackles), but then sat out the rest of the year in order to preserve redshirt status. He will be a redshirt-sophomore this fall.

On Saturday, Ben Nelson – who walked on at Michigan State as an offensive lineman – and walk-on Jaxson Wilson, served as the fourth and fifth defensive tackles in the program.

When asked about the defensive line group following Saturday’s Spring Showcase scrimmage, Smith was matter-of-fact.

“I think that group was solid, the guys that were going during the spring,” Smith said in a comment that didn’t feel like a jab at Barrow. “We feel like we have a few guys that can impact the game.”

In January, Smith cited Barrow as being a good team leader. But Smith didn’t seem angered or frustrated by the Barrow decision. Meanwhile, Michigan State lost two third-string cornerbacks – Eddie Pleasant and Marqui Lowery – and a second-string offensive lineman – Braden Miller – to the portal at mid-week. 

Michigan State undoubtedly would have liked to have retained Barrow. Meanwhile, others are likely encouraged to explore other avenues, thereby clearing scholarship space for the Spartans. 

“The landscape creates that, so we’re not the only ones dealing with it,” Smith said of players moving on before the close of spring practice. “You just try to create an environment where these guys feel like they have an opportunity and they have a chance to develop and grow. I feel like we have established that for about four months. I think we have a lot of guys that are feeling optimistic about the approach. But again, in this landscape, everybody has their individual decisions. And vice-versa I look at it as a way in the next few months we can add some really good players to the roster.”

Four days earlier, following Tuesday’s practice, the portal officially opened. Smith was asked about finishing spring drills knowing that some players would possibly be moving on.

“We’ll find out,” he said with an air of acceptance. “Those will be individual choices but we’re kind of locked in on finishing spring ball. Practicing is going good, and the energy around. (We’re) not oblivious to the portal being open but I think we’ve got a good thing going that guys want to be a part of.”

Those around Smith describe him as ultra-competitive. But that seems to come with an even keel. He doesn’t seem cranky about losing players on the free agent market.  

“I’m not completely down on the portal,” Smith said. “I think the origination of it was good. Finding a new environment, environments change, opportunities for guys to get a fresh start somewhere else, I think a lot of that is still good.”

Michigan State is going to remain busy in the portal in the coming days and weeks. 

Michigan State is also set to host transfer portal defensive end Eddie Kelly for an official visit on April 24-25. Kelly (6-4, 280) spent the 2023 season with Georgia Tech, logging 36 tackles in five games as a true sophomore. 

The Spartans also offered former Youngstown State/Illinois defensive lineman Anthony Johnson. Johnson has already taken an official visit to East Lansing.

Michigan State offered former Rutgers defensive tackle Rene Konga on April 19. Konga played in 21 career games with the Scarlet Knights, racking up 14 career tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. He played in 10 games this past season, logging eight tackles and a strip sack.

Transfer portal defensive lineman Brandon Lane, tells SpartanMag.com he is looking to set up an unofficial visit with Michigan State shortly. Lane (6-5, 270) spent the previous two seasons with Stephen F. Austin, logging 56 career tackles, two and a half sacks, and a fumble recovery during the two seasons. He had 45 tackles in 2023. Lane also spent two seasons with South Dakota State before transferring to Stephen. F Austin.

Jonathan Smith, Michigan State head football coach. (Photo by Donte Smith for SpartanMag.com).

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