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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Reasons to be Optimistic

We continue our look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans with a look at reasons to be optimistic heading in to the season.

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Michigan State has been a surprising team as of late. First it surprised everyone by going from the College Football Playoff to a 3-9 team in a matter of one season. Then it surprised a lot of people from weathering that 33-9 season and a horrible offseason to return to a Big Ten East contender in 2017.

So, where does that leave the 2018 version of Mark Dantonio’s Spartans? Well, we’re here to break that down all week and today we’ll give you the reasons to be optimistic about MSU.

Holy Experience Batman

One reason why Michigan State has been so successful under Mark Dantonio is that he has a system and sticks to it. That consistency helps his players in a major way, but so does having experienced players executing that system.

So, it should be no coincidence that when the Spartans are at their best it’s with a very experienced team.

The 2018 version of the Spartans return 19 starters, including 10 on the offensive side of the ball. Spearheading that attack is second-year starting QB Brian Lewerke, whose ability to be a deadly passer as well as a deadly runner has added a different wrinkle to the MSU offense.

Defensively, this team is as strong as it may ever be under Dantonio. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams are beasts at defensive tackle and Joe Bachie follows a long line of quality middle linebackers behind that group. In fact, another season like Bachie had in 2017 and he could be the best middle linebacker MSU has seen in the Dantonio era. Those are just three of 9 returning starters for a defense that was No. 2 in the country against the run last season.

That 2017 team was light on experience, but had plenty of potential. Fast forward a season and this is one of the more experienced teams in the Big Ten, and that should help them contend in the rough and tumble Big Ten East division.

Skill Position Depth

This isn’t your brother or sister’s Michigan State Spartans squad anymore. No longer does MSU have to pound you in to submission on offense. Instead, it can be as dynamic an offense as any the Big Ten has to offer.

One huge reason for that is a deep group of skill position players at the ready. MSU has arguably its most versatile group of wide receivers it has had in the 2010’s. 6 foot, 4 inch tall Felton Davis is a matchup nightmare thanks to his size and speed, while Darrell Stewart is perfect in the slot and can kill you with deceptive speed. Both caught over 50 passes last season to prove they belong. Meanwhile up and coming Cody White is another big threat, catching 35 passes as a freshman last year.

Defensively, things look good on the edge with the combo of Justin Layne and Josiah Scott. Layne’s size (6-3) and Scott’s ability to use his hands well makes this combo difficult to pass against. Scott nabbed a pair of interceptions and led the team with 10 pass breakups as a freshman last season, while Layne had eight of his own pass break ups and a forced fumble to go with 40 total tackles as well.

There’s also depth behind them at cornerback and two safeties that are proving to grow in to their roles. Having the skill positions be a strength should only help an offensive line that returns a lot of starting experience but lacked quality run game production a season ago.

Mark Dantonio

Few coaches in the Big Ten get as much out of their talent as Dantonio does in East Lansing.

Any time you have Dantonio on your side, it’s a reason to be optimistic that things are going to be just fine. How Dantonio helped his guys weather an offseason storm and how he took the slings and arrows of the media over the past 18 months is a testament to why the team can be successful on the field.

In a conference that has upgraded its overall coaching talent, Dantonio still stands out as one of the best motivators and teachers in the Big Ten. Don’t underestimate that mattering when the games kick off this fall.

Overall Thoughts

There is certainly reason for renewed optimism around the Spartans program.

While it may be difficult to get all the way back to the College Football Playoff level, at least the Spartans aren’t going backwards as many seemed to think they were heading in to 2017.

Combining Dantonio’s steady system with experienced players who just so happen to be very productive while gaining that experience is a great reason to be bullish on this team. Don’t be surprised to see this formula equal a run towards the East division title and national recognition too.

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

Spartans Football

Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Lessons from 2017

What did the 2017 season teach us about the Michigan State Spartans program?

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There was little doubt that 2017 was going to be a defining season in the Mark Dantonio era. With a ton of pressure from the outside world and a crazy 3-9 season in the rearview mirror, either Dantonio would sink his own ship or right it.

It didn’t take long to see that a program in turmoil had banded together in an “us vs. them” mentality that worked well for the Spartans.

The result was a 10-3 season, wins over two of the biggest names in the Big Ten East division and a very different narrative heading in to the 2018 offseason.

But, with so much happening around the program last season, what lessons were learned that would apply to 2018?

Let’s take a look at what lessons we believe will matter going forward.

Adversity Wears Well on Spartans

No team in the Big Ten had a worse 2017 offseason than the Spartans did. There were awful off-field allegations, charges and convictions. There were players suspended, kicked off the team and transfers.

Yet, when the dust settled on the 2017 season, a team that seemingly was in disarray nearly won the East division. A team that won just three games in 2016 and suffered through a very public and ugly offseason managed to right the ship right away and went 7-2 in Big Ten play.

There were wins over rival Michigan and a red-hot Penn Stat program and a massive blowout of Washington State in the Holiday bowl for redemption of not being selected for a seemingly better positioned bowl game.

At every step of the way in 2017 there was major adversity. Instead of folding, Mark Dantonio’s crew rallied together and came away with a season few saw coming from the outside world.

It was certainly a positive lesson for everyone involved — from what not to do off the field to how to grow together in the face of major doubters. By the end of it all, MSU football felt like it was closer to being back in the Big Ten title picture than ever before. The lesson of the 2017 season won’t soon be forgotten.

1-QB System Works Best

If you would’ve told anyone back in the 2016 offseason that Brian Lewerke would be the answer to MSU’s quarterback hopes, few would’ve believed you. Yet, the pattern of quarterback-by-committee not working and then getting a leader to emerge and make the team dangerous the next continued on.

No position seems to hold the keys to success or failure at Michigan State more that quarterback. It’s no coincidence that settling on one quarterback has proven to be the defining factor in offensive success at MSU.

Lewerke looked like the better option in 2016, took hold of the position in 2017 and the Spartans offense was back off to the races. The sophomore signal caller threw for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to just 7 interceptions. Compare that to the three-headed QB monster in 2016 that ended up with just 2,668 yards, completed just 57 percent of their passes and had just 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.

Coming up the ranks from a walk-on to starter in the face of supposed stiff competition from Damion Terry, Tyler O’Connor and emerging as the steadying force showed that picking one quarterback and sticking with them is a recipe for better chances at success in East Lansing.

Lewerke established himself as the starter and has two more years to lead this team forward. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that Lewerke is not to be underestimated, just like the Spartans as a whole.

This Offense has to be More Than Lewerke

As impressive as Brian Lewerke was last season, for large swaths of 2017 he was the only offense that mattered for Michigan State.

In fact, not only did Lewerke lead the way through the air, he was the Spartans leading rusher for much of the year too. Only a late-season surge from L.J. Scott, who only had three 100-yard games on the entire season, allowed him to overtake Lewerke on the ground.

Scott finished the season with 898 yards to Lewerke’s 559 yards, with Scott leading the TD category 8 to 5.

While it was nice to see the team back to winning against quality competition, the Spartans were torn apart by teams who could shut Lewerke down. Ohio State tore apart MSU and more importantly, held Lewerke completely in check. He rushed for just 2 total yards and passed for just 131 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in the 48-3 loss.

Can Scott become the star everyone thought he might have been last season, this season? If MSU wants to become a true East division and Big Ten title contender, it has to re-establish a tough run game that doesn’t rely on Lewerke to be the leading rusher for most of the season.

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Michigan State AD Mark Hollis’ retirement is too little, too late

Mark Hollis announced his retirement amidst the fallout of the Larry Nassar trial, but his removal from MSU is too little, too late.

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Dr. Larry Nassar will go down as one of the most evil actors in modern American sports history, and Michigan State will go down as one of the saddest administrations in collegiate athletics history because of his actions on campus and the failure to report sexual assault that was happening right under their noses.

Many shoes have dropped since the trail of Nassar wrapped up and his sentence to spending the rest of his life and forever more beyond that in prison concluded. The first shoe to drop at MSU was that of the president of the university, Lou Ann Simon, who resigned earlier this week.

Even in resigning, Simon proved why this whole thing is such a tragedy — because Michigan State has been woefully inadequate in protecting its students and completely tone-deaf in how it has talked publicly about this sad situation.

“As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable,” she said in statement. “As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger. I understand, and that is why I have limited my personal statements. Throughout my career, I have worked very hard to put Team MSU first. Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU. I have tried to make it not about me. I urge those who have supported my work to understand that I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president according to the terms of my employment agreement.”

Tragedies are politicized? Perhaps Simon was talking about some internal strife on the Board of Trustee’s, which has certainly been the case, but to most in the general public they are left wondering what the heck she is talking about.

But, her resignation is far from the final change that will happen in the fallout from Nassar’s trial and the awful revelations that came from it.

The next shoe to drop was that of long-time athletics director Mark Hollis, who resigned his post on Friday.

“It’s been an absolute honor to guide the Athletic Department for the last decade. That being said, today I am announcing my retirement,” Hollis said in a statement released by the university.

“This was not an easy decision for my family, and you should not jump to any conclusions based on our decision — listen to facts. I am not running away from anything, I am running toward something. Comfort, compassion and understanding for the survivors and our community; togetherness, time and love for my family,” Hollis said.

Hollis oversaw the athletic department for over a decade, officially taking on the role of AD on Jan. 1, 2008 after more than a decade working within the department in various roles.

It’s good to know that Hollis stepped down, but his resignation rings hallow given what we’ve learned through the Dr. Larry Nasser trial. What took place at Michigan State and to other female gymnasts in the United States at the hands of Nasser is simply sickening. There’s no other way to describe it.

What is equally sickening is the knowledge we all gained at the trail that there were more than one, two or even three opportunities for Nassar’s evil to be stopped on the campus of Michigan State no less. Yet, under Hollis’ watch absolutely nothing was done and not a single coach or person was held responsible for their actions when revelations were coming out at trail.

Coaches, trainers, fellow athletes and administrators failed their athletes at the highest level in this case. When you’re the head of an organization and everyone below you fails, you fail too. So, congrats on “retiring” and running away (even though you say you aren’t) from what you and your staff is responsible for.

Even more damning is that Hollis was wholly unaware of any previous claims made by student-athletes or anyone else until the final claim that broke everything open in 2016.

Athletic departments are supposed to be there to help the student-athlete become successful in life and to protect and guide them through difficult times.

But, this isn’t the only scandalous event that Hollis has had to navigate in his time as Spartans AD. Let’s not forget the winter of 2017, which saw three football players accused of, charged and dismissed from the team for sexual assault and then had another player accused of sexual assault just a few months later.

It was a big black eye, and one that Hollis did little to really quell, because these weren’t the first time a football player had a big run-in with the law or sexual assault charges. Nothing happened other than those players being dismissed, and rightfully so.

When you take the football offseason of 2017 and add in what took place for over a decade to gymnasts at MSU, you see a very troubling pattern of zero accountability or care for the welfare of students and athletes on campus. That’s as damning a statement as you can make for any athletic director and by any measure, an ultimate failure of anyone in an authority position.

So, forgive me if I find the victory of Hollis’ “retirement” just a bit too little, too late for the victims of Nassar.

With the NCAA opening up an investigation, this could be just the tip of the iceberg for a program in turmoil and real trouble moving forward.

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An early look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans offense

While everyone wants to look back at 2017, its actually time to look ahead to 2018 for the Michigan State Spartans offense.

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From the bottom to the top, now can they stay there? The Michigan State Spartans had one of the biggest turnarounds in conference history in 2017 and nearly pulled off an improbable East division title en route to a 10-3 season.

It was a return back to the top after a year of turmoil on and off the field. But, we’re not so interested in the past here. Instead, we want to look forward to 2018 and what the Spartans may have up their sleeves for the season to come.

We started our look forward with an in-depth look at what 2018 holds for the Spartan Dawgs a.k.a. the Michigan State defense. Today we talk about the Spartans offense.

Biggest Question Mark:

Can the offense start fast in Big Ten play?

When I look at the stat sheet from 2017, one thing that jumps up at me is the fact that Michigan State struggled hard in the run game to start Big Ten play. In fact, the Spartans offense had a four-game stretch in conference play where it failed to gain 100 yards on the ground. Those four games came against quality run defenses like Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State. Only once in those four games did the Spartans score more than 24 points either.

This season, MSU gets Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan to start Big Ten play. That’s not going to be an easy task for the Spartans offense to say the least. But, this will be a more veteran group in 2018 and the results down the stretch indicate an offense that could be explosive.

If they want to get back to truly competing at the top of the Big Ten (they finished a distant second to OSU on the field this year) East division, getting off to a better offensive start against the better defenses is a good place to start. But, can this team improve enough this offseason to do just that?

Reason to be Optimistic:

Youth growing up

Michigan State was nothing if not young all over the place on offense in 2017, but by the end of the season it was an offense few would’ve wanted to play. There was a healthy Brian Lewerke who showed a dual-threat option Michigan State hasn’t had at quarterback ever under Mark Dantonio. There was an offensive line that found an identity as the season wore on. There was a wide receiver group that stepped up to the plate as the season wore on too.

Lewerke finished 2017 as the only QB in Spartans history to throw for 2,500 yards and run for 500 in a single season. If he continues to progress like he did this past year, a lot of MSU quarterback records are going to fall.

All of those things indicate growth for a young team in 2017 and should be invaluable moments to learn from and build on for 2018 as well. Taking time this offseason to digest the film, continue to work in the weight room and gel as a young offensive team are going to be vital to what is put on the field for the 2018 season.

Perhaps the best bit of news is that the classic formula of MSU offense seems to be back. By that, I mean there’s a quarterback who took the bull by the horns at his position, a quality stable of running backs and an offensive line that can be counted on..at least in terms of four returning starters at season’s end.

Let’s see how this young group responds to increased expectations after an offseason of turmoil galvanized this group last year. My guess is there’s plenty of work that the coaching staff will highlight to keep this group hungry this spring.

Reason to be Pessimistic:

Loss of biggest leader on offensive line

The offensive line was very young last season, but it had a bona fide leader in senior center Brian Allen. You have to wonder what the struggles would’ve looked like without his leadership. As we’ve noted, the struggles in the run game were early and easily identifiable during the 2017 season.

But, experience and the leadership of Allen showed up in a big way as the run game finally got going late in the 2017 season. Losing Allen’s leadership is a big deal because the offensive line is still going to be young in 2018. They’ll have to find that rock, that leader in the trenches and do it quickly.

Michigan State can’t become an offense that solely relies on Lewerke in 2018, and they wasted what could’ve been a huge season on the ground for most of the year in 2018. I’m not sold that there’s the transformational leader on the offensive line just yet. We’ll see how that grows during the offseason, but someone needs to take a big role in East Lansing or it could mean trouble for the run game.

Projected Starting Lineup:

WR: Felton Davis III, Jr.
WR: Darrell Stewart, Jr.
WR: Cody White, So.
LT: Cole Chewins, Jr.
LG: David Beedle, Jr.
C: Matthew Allen, So.
RG: Kevin Jarvis, So.
RT: Luke Campbell, So.
QB: Brian Lewerke, Jr.
RB: L.J. Scott, Sr.
FB: Collin Lucas, Sr.

Overall Outlook:

Returning a quality quarterback ✔️

A dangerous running back ✔️

A veteran offensive line ✔️

What does that all mean? For Michigan State it has always meant a dangerous team for the upcoming season. With the likes of Lewerke, Scott and four starters returning on the offensive line the basics for success for this group are there.

Then you add in a growing and impressive group of young wide receivers led by the likes of Cody White and Hunter Rison (he’s actually announced a transfer just hours after writing this article) and you can see an offense that won’t be one-dimensional to start the 2018 season. In fact, I’d say this offense reminds me of the ones that got the Spartans to the New Year’s Six and College Football Playoffs a few years ago.

I know that’s lofty to speak of, and I’m not setting those expectations just yet. All I’m saying is that the pieces are in place for an offense that could be explosive in 2018 and that has to have Spartans fans excited about what could be in 2018. It’s certainly a far cry from the outlook heading in to and during most of last offseason.

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An early look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans defense

Michigan State’s defense returned to form in 2017, what does 2018 have in store for the signature side of the ball under Dantonio?

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From the bottom to the top, now can they stay there? The Michigan State Spartans had one of the biggest turnarounds in conference history in 2017 and nearly pulled off an improbable East division title en route to a 10-3 season.

It was a return back to the top after a year of turmoil on and off the field. But, we’re not so interested in the past here. Instead, we want to look forward to 2018 and what the Spartans may have up their sleeves for the season to come.

We start our look forward with an in-depth look at what 2018 holds for the Spartan Dawgs a.k.a. the Michigan State defense.

Biggest Question Mark:

How does coaching change affect the Spartans?

The hallmark of Mark Dantonio’s era at Michigan State has been its dominating defensive performances. MSU got back to that level for the most part in 2017, but it came at a price as reports indicate that defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett is taking the same job with Florida State. (later confirmed here)

Michigan State must now find a quality replacement for the second time in Dantonio’s time in East Lansing. Barnett was an obvious hire after the departure of Pat Narduzzi for the Pitt head coaching gig. This blow is much different, as it is a lateral move (although probably for more money).

Barnett did a fabulous job turning around this defense and it will be a veteran group for the most part. However, coaching changes can be interesting to watch, even if they happen internally. Chemistry and fit are important factors, and even having a coach jump up internally from a position level to coordinator can mess with that.

Should the reports be true, Michigan State faces a massive question in front of itself. Barnett wasn’t some fly-by-night coach under Dantonio, he was a loyal assistant who came with the head coach from Cincinnati and has been on staff in East Lansing in some capacity since 2014. He’s also a former All-American at Michigan State.

It’s likely that Barnett wanted the sole ownership of a defense, as he shared coordinator duties with Mike Tressel since Narduzzi’s departure. Will Tressel step in as sole defensive coordinator and is that a wise move? Most sources I speak with indicate that Barnett was a powerful figure in the locker room and amongst the defensive players, so there is going to a major void to be filled by Tressel or someone else that is brought in.

Reason to be Optimistic:

Have you seen that front seven?

Michigan State’s rise back towards the best defenses in the country can be pinpointed to one thing and one thing only in 2017 — great defensive line play. So, it’s only right to look up front to see how things would stack up heading in to 2018.

So, it’s easy to be optimistic about whatever happens for the Spartans defense this upcoming season when you see that three of four starters return. Soon-to-be junior defensive linemen Raequan Williams and Kenny Willekes stepped up in a huge way in 2017 and are poised to be stars in the Big Ten this upcoming season. Willekes was named third team All-Big Ten and could be one of the best returning defensive linemen in the conference.

The loss of Demetrius Cooper is going to be felt, as he racked up 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season. But, it was more of his overall motor that will be hard to replace.

But, that is a minor issue to say the least and one that depth showed could be overcome even this past season. That’s the real reason to be optimistic about Michigan State’s defense — names like Jacub Panasiuk and Naquon Jones were big in reserve roles this past season.

Look for this unit to be the biggest strength of the team.

Reason to be Pessimistic:

Coaching Change for an O.K. Secondary

Uncertainty in the back end of a defense can lead to all sorts of trouble. So, this is less about being pessimistic than it is about being cautious. But, with the loss of Barnett as co-defensive coordinator also comes the loss of him as the secondary coach.

This group has been the hallmark of the toughness and aggressiveness MSU has become known for on defense. Barnett’s personality and coaching of the aggressive secondary was a large part of that identity and now he is gone.

There is another reason to possibly pick this group — stats. On the one hand, this group finished seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense. On the other hand, Michigan State was good at picking off the ball and finished fourth in the conference with 14 interceptions as a team, and was a really green secondary in 2017.

But, with Barnett gone this group sees a big leadership vacuum come in to the fold. For the past 14 seasons, no one had to wonder who was coaching this group, but now they do.

If there’s a reason to perhaps see 2018 as not great for the Spartans defense, it could be that the changes on the coaching staff affect the secondary more than people realize.

Let’s see what kind of personal leadership is there from the players in the secondary group themselves. Perhaps they pull together through this change and come out stronger…or

Projected Starting Lineup:

DE: Kenny Willekes, Jr.
DT: Mike Panasiuk, Jr.
DT: Raequan Williams, Jr.
DE: Jacub Panasiuk, So.
STAR: Andrew Dowell, Sr.
MIKE: Joe Bachie, Jr.
SAM: Brandon Randle, So.
CB: Justin Layne, Jr.
FS: David Dowell, Jr.
SS: Khari Wills, Sr.
CB: Josiah Scott, So.

Overall Outlook:

Harlon Barnett’s departure is a big one, and while it is tempting to think that things will remain the same for MSU’s defense, I’m a little worried about this loss.

One big reason is that Barnett’s ability to get the most out of the secondary has ben a highlight of the Spartans defense throughout the Dantonio era. Can whomever they hire come in and maintain that level f coaching and development of players?

But, the good news for the Spartans is that they return a ton of talent in the front seven, talent that was young and proved it was up to the challenge. Look for that front seven to be the catalyst for an impressive MSU defense in 2018…as long as it doesn’t lose its personality with Barnett now gone.

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