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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Lessons from the 2016 season

It’s that time of year here at talking10…you know, were we take a week-long look at every Big Ten team. Up all this week are the Michigan State Spartans.

Before you know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been, so what better way to kick off preview week than a look back to 2016.

What did this past season teach us about the 2017 version of the Michigan State Spartans? It seems like a fair question and one every good coach and player would reflect upon in the offseason.

However, for the Spartans it appears that what took place between the season and spring football is really what determines how things are going to go in 2017. Not only did a handful of players head off to the NFL, others graduated and then there were a whole heap of offseason transgressions to sift through.

So, we are going to do our best to look at what is left of the program we knew in 2016 and apply lessons to the 2017 season.

Losing Season, Losing Offseason?

Some say that losing breeds losing if you don’t stop the bleeding quickly. Then again, the Spartans went from national championship contenders to 3-9 in just one year. So perhaps there is a lot to be worried about the program on the field.

Upheaval at quarterback, inconsistent line play on both sides of the ball and injuries did MSU in big time this past season. But, things were only compounded as head coach Mark Dantonio and Co. looked to put a perplexing season behind them. The losing only continued with players transferring out of the program, others basically being kicked out of the program and then the motherload of offseason scandals in the Big Ten.

Yes, we have to talk about the fact that not one, not two, but four players managed to be brought up on charges of sexual assault in the offseason. Three players, now all gone from the team, allegedly took advantage of a girl in the bathroom at a party and after nearly five months of investigation were formally charged. They are innocent until proven guilty in the court of law, but they also wont’ be playing football at Michigan State ever again.

The three ex-players — Donnie Corley, Josh King and Demetric Vance — were all going to be vital parts to the puzzle to get back towards the top of the college football world. So was linebacker Jon Reschke, who transferred instead of getting dismissed after some apparently off-color comments directed at teammates.

Michigan State’s depletion wasn’t complete with those incidents either. That’s because defensive backs Kaleel Gains and Kenney Lyke transferred from the program in June. Just a few days later the most experienced person in said secondary, Vayante Copeland, transferred from the program as well. Those are but a few of the 11 players who transferred or were dismissed from the team.

Luckily it appears that Demetrius Cooper will still be around after avoiding jail time for violating terms of his probation in the offseason as well. That’s about the only silver lining to all of this offseason junk in East Lansing.

The hope is that the bad apples are gone and this team has grown close in the offseason. It has an uphill battle ahead of it to say the least, so they’ll need to lean on each other now more than ever if they want to get back to being a division and conference title contender.


Consistency at Quarterback is Key

As much as Michigan State’s offensive line play was maligned at times in 2016, it didn’t help much that there was a complete roller coaster ride happening behind them either. Senior Tyler O’Connor got the early season first crack at the starting job and failed.

Then it was split time between redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and junior Damion Terry, only to see the coaching staff figure out what we all knew from spring football — Lewerke deserved to be the starter. He played well in three starts against Northwestern, Maryland and Michigan before getting injured in the in-state rivalry game and never seeing the field again. Lewerke finished the season 31 of 57 passing for 381 yards and two touchdowns to one interception. While they aren’t mind-blowing numbers, it was a positive start in a sea of mediocre play from upperclassmen.

Lewerke also seemed to have a knack for sparking the offense just when it needed it most. He’s the presumed starter unless something crazy happens in fall camp. But, experience from Damion Terry and Messiah deWeaver’s continued growth also likely means this group could be better overall should the worst thing happen.

What worries me is that this coaching staff has seen the scenario that played out in 2016 over and over again — having to replace a veteran starter, going with the senior option that wasn’t awe-inspiring and having to switch to the young kid anyway. What should give hope is that said young player has usually turned in to a really good long-term option once settled in to the starting job.

Will see if the promise of Lewerke’s 2016 pays off in 2017, but MSU fans better hope it does or it could be another long season in East Lansing.

Michigan State Is Teetering on a Recruiting Tight Rope

Sorry to say it, but Michigan State isn’t a blue-blood program. It doesn’t have the sustained success and recruiting prowess of a Clemson. It doesn’t have the academic and athletic reputation of a Stanford. Heck it is third fiddle in attention (some could say fourth) in its own division within the Big Ten.

Yet, in previous years the Spartans were making big noise on the recruiting trail and things were looking solid for the future. After all, hauling in multiple four and five-star players should’ve taken this program to a new level of sustained success.

Instead, the Spartans have really gambled over the past three years in an attempt to reach that next level and if 2016 was any indication, that gamble has failed miserably. How else do you explain hauling in

Sure, it is nice to make headlines on the recruiting trail and go toe-to-toe with the blue-bloods of college football recruiting, but it appears Michigan State did so betting on the wrong players.

Malik McDowell was a 5-star talent on the field and a mess for the locker room. Multiple reports indicated much of the chemistry and togetherness that MSU teams of the past have been built on was gone over the past two seasons. A lot of the fingers were pointed to some of the more high-profile.

The fact of the matter is, Michigan State got to the College Football Playoff in large part due to its ability to know who it was and what players made it successful. In the final lead up to that season it began to recruit players it normally wouldn’t — more in terms of character than talent. MSU took chances on character for chances to bring in top-level talent.

McDowell was a mess for the Spartans off the field and just look above for the mess that players like Donnie Corley and others became too. Simply put, Michigan State dropped the ball on the recruiting trail in an attempt to become something it wasn’t.

If anything, 2016 should be a lesson to Dantonio and his coaching staff that reaching for the stars just because isn’t a good idea. It should be time to get back to the basics of what brought them to the party while also selecting the bigger named players that also fit the hard-working mold this program has built.

Let’s see how things go, but if there’s going to be a downfall to Dantonio’s tenure, it could be the extra and unnecessary chances he took on the recruiting trail.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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