How Michigan State football navigates 'challenging' task of installing new offensive line

·6 min read

EAST LANSING — J.D. Duplain glanced around Michigan State football’s offensive line room and didn’t see many of the faces he got used to seeing his first four years.

Gone are Matt Allen, AJ Arcuri, Blake Bueter, Luke Campbell and Kevin Jarvis — five linemen who formed the backbone of the Spartans’ five-man front since 2017 and helped pave the way for Kenneth Walker III’s marquee campaign and an 11-win season last fall.

“Two years ago, it was probably them helping me out with some things, because we had a lot of older guys. Now, it's kind of flipping roles,” said Duplain, a fourth-year senior. “Those guys did a great job showing me what leaders look like. So now, I'm just using the tools that they showed me and then using that with the young guys and bringing them along.”

Michigan State coach Chris Kapilovic, center, works with the offensive line during practice on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in East Lansing.
Michigan State coach Chris Kapilovic, center, works with the offensive line during practice on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in East Lansing.

Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic stopped short of calling this the most important camp for his position group since he arrived with Mel Tucker in 2020. However, he realizes the depth MSU lost and the urgency to bring young players along quickly.

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“I wouldn't say more important, but I would say more challenging,” Kapilovic said Monday. “So if we see each other again in about three weeks, you might see me age more than normal. … If you look at my room, I think if I'm saying this correctly, I think I got 12 or 13 guys that are first-year or redshirt freshmen. That's a lot. But that's OK, that's why I have coach in front of my name. I gotta get them ready to go.”

The Allen-Arcuri-Bueter-Campbell-Jarvis quintet combined to play in 213 games with 136 career starts between them from 2017-21. Arcuri got drafted by the Rams in April, while Jarvis landed as a free agent with the Lions.

“I think once you play with guys for so long, you understand their strengths or weaknesses and where you can help out and how you step, how far they step inside or something,” fourth-year senior center Nick Samac said. “You learn how to play with different guys based on different play styles.”

There remains a good amount of returning experience, along with the addition of Brian Greene (Washington State) from the transfer portal to help, offset the departures.

Duplain has the most, starting 23 of his 30 games at left guard the past three seasons. Samac started at center in 2019 and 2020, but he took a second-string role to a healthy Allen last season. Matt Carrick started 18 of his 38 games at right guard, though the sixth-year senior is coming back from leg surgery that cut short his 2021.

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“We got five or six guys who've played a lot college football. So for us, it's less of the communicating with each other, because we all can kind of see and know what's going on. It's just how fast can we mesh and play and get to our spots,” Duplain said. “And for those younger guys, it's a lot more communication, because they need all five of them to be on the same page in real time. So those younger guys really need to keep talking, because if one person knows something, everyone should know.

Michigan State's offensive line works out during practice on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in East Lansing.
Michigan State's offensive line works out during practice on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in East Lansing.

That includes blending in Greene, who played both center and guard at Washington State and made 10 starts in his 30 career games.

“It's great for both parties,” said Greene, who has been splitting time at center and guard early in camp for the Spartans. “We got a really good group, and we got a lot to build on and keep improving. But we're meshing really well, and we're looking really good so far.”

Also back for MSU is Jarrett Horst, who started the first eight games last season at left tackle. The senior missed the final seven games of the year, but Kapilovic said Horst is healthy now after offseason “clean-up” procedures. Carrick also is being brought along slowly after his surgery.

It was a difficult spring for the line. Duplain, Horst, Carrick and Geno VanDeMark all sat out the final open practice, while Dallas Fincher also missed time. MSU moved two defensive tackles, Evan Brunning and Jacob LaFave, just to get enough healthy bodies to run two units.

“I think it's kind of what I expected. The older guys, the football IQ is growing, good effort,” Kapilovic said. “We had some of the older guys that didn't go to spring, so there's a little rust there that you can see. You're seeing a little progression from them each day, which is good and which I expected.”

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However, those injuries also allowed younger players more snaps going into the offseason and to get them prepared for potentially bigger backup roles.

Junior Spencer Brown started his first game at right tackle in the Peach Bowl and appears ticketed to keep the job. Sophomore Brandon Baldwin and redshirt freshman Ethan Boyd are competing for second-string tackle spots, while Fincher, sophomore Fincher, along with redshirt freshmen VanDeMark and Kevin Wigenton are all pushing for backup duty on the interior.

“If you can get five guys inside there, you feel pretty good about it. I got four guys snapping, so you feel good that you got enough guys that can snap if something happens your centers,” Kapilovic said about his interior linemen. “At the tackle, Horst and Spencer have been very, very solid. Spencer continues to mature. And then Baldwin and Boyd are the guys that you really need to step up. You want to have at least three (tackles) that you really feel good about, and then hopefully the fourth one can keep coming along."

Add to the mix freshmen Gavin Broscious, Ashton Lepo, Braden Miller and Kristian Phillips, all of whom are in the learning process but have the size and prep pedigree to eventually contribute.

“We got a large amount of young guys on this team. They've got talent, but their football IQ and their ability to focus for long periods of time are lacking at times,” Kapilovic said of his rookies and second-year linemen. “Completely different last year in the sense that we had an older group, so now you got to really stay on those kids. But I do like the potential of those young guys. … They're just not ready yet.”

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

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Matchup: Michigan State (11-2 in 2021) vs. Western Michigan (8-5 in 2021)

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football: New OL install certainly 'challenging'