Michigan State has a pass-catching problem.
Leading receiver Aaron Burbridge has moved on to the NFL after catching 85 balls for 1,258 yards last year. So are two other receivers. That leaves senior wideout R.J. Shelton as the only receiver on the roster who caught more than six passes a year ago.
Six passes! Other than Shelton, Michigan State has some major voids to fill at receiver. Replacing quarterback Connor Cook might be viewed as the top priority, but giving the next MSU quarterback weapons to throw to might be even more important.
Shelton should be poised to take over as the No. 1 receiver after fully converting to the position this season. He set a career high with 43 receptions, 503 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing 24 times for 127 yards last season. Shelton was often used in the running game on end-around plays or jet sweeps, but that might need to change if Shelton is going to get thrust into the No. 1 receiver role.
Shelton’s relative inexperience combined with his small stature – he’s only 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds – raises concerns as to whether he can become a true No. 1 receiver. Shelton came to Michigan State as an all-purpose back, a three-down running back who was a talented pass catcher out of the backfield. While he’s made a commitment to becoming a true wideout, he will need to hone his craft as a route runner.
Even more disconcerting is that only two returning wide receivers – fifth-year senior Monty Madaris and sophomore Felton Davis III – caught a pass for the Spartans last season. The two combined to catch only four passes for 97 yards last season.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound Madaris has seven receptions to his name during his two years at Michigan State. The former four-star recruit has struggled to stay on the field for a variety of reasons and missed the first four games of the 2015 season with a leg injury. He ultimately appeared in 10 games as a receiver and special teams player.
Davis has the stature to become a legitimate No. 1 receiver at 6-foot-4 and 198 pounds. He saw time as the starting split end during spring practice and garnered some important experience during his freshman season. Davis played in seven games last season and his only two receptions came during Michigan State’s final two contests of the season. A former three-star recruit, Davis will likely get the first crack as the starting receiver opposite Shelton.
Help should be on the way, however. Four-star freshmen Donnie Corley and Cameron Chambers have already enrolled and fellow four-star receivers Justin Layne and Trishton Jackson will join the offense in the fall. Coach Mark Dantonio did a tremendous job of keeping an eye on the future on the recruiting trail, but each of these freshmen will have a learning curve, particularly the latter two. The future should be bright at the position, but MSU will need immediate contributions this season.
The Spartans likely will need Madaris and Davis to step into prominent roles while hoping a couple of freshmen grow up quickly to provide much-needed depth. It will be even more crucial for Michigan State to restock the weaponry on the fly as doing so will help presumptive starting quarterback Tyler O’Connor acclimate quickly.
Michigan State shouldn’t be ruled out as Big Ten East contenders. But to make it consecutive Big Ten titles, the Spartans will need to find immediate production from an inexperienced group of receivers.