No one expected the 2016 Michigan State Spartans season to turn out the way it did. Certainly not head coach Mark Dantonio and his coaching staff.
Few would’ve believed you if you would’ve told them that a team that went to the Cotton Bowl and nearly made the College Football Playoff wouldn’t have even made a postseason appearance the next year. Yet, that is exactly what happened, with Michigan State going 3-9 overall and just 1-8 in the Big Ten.
It also means that this spring and this entire offseason become the most important to date since the first time Dantonio arrived on campus in East Lansing.
Spring Football Starting Date: February 25
Spring Football Game: April 1
Key Players Lost: R.J. Shelton, WR; Monty Madaris, WR; Malik McDowell, DT; Riley Bullough, LB; Demetrious Cox, S; Montae Nicholson, S
Key Players Returning: L.J. Scott, RB; Brian Allen, OG; Donnie Corley, WR; Demetrius Cooper, DE; Andrew Dowell, LB; Chris Frey, LB
Offensive To-Do List:
— Find a Quarterback: There’s little denying that quarterback play was a mess in 2016. Tyler O’Connor was wildly ineffective early on and it appeared he was losing his starting job to former walk-on Brian Lewerke. However, a broken leg suffered in October threw that plan out the window.
O’Connor graduated, and Lewerke was named “the quarterback to beat” by Mark Dantonio when he spoke to the media shortly after the 2016 season finished. However, there are likely two big challengers this spring in senior Damion Terry and intriguing freshman Messiah deWeaver. The latter was a massive hit in fall practice, but was able to redshirt this past season.
The good news is the cupboard is far from bare, but the bad news is that no option available is really established.
— Getting Some Competition at Offensive Line: No position has bigger question marks than MSU’s offensive line this spring. That’s what happens when three starters graduate and a key reserve call it quits.
All that is left are two decent building blocks in sophomore left tackle Cole Chewins and senior Brian Allen, who is likely to slide over to center this spring. However, the real challenge is going to be finding three other players to go alongside them. David Beedle could be in line for a move up the depth chart to left guard, while Chase Gianacakos is likely to find himself with the first shot at positions on the right side of the line.
Depth has to be a major concern though, and building competition for starting positions may bode well for this team heading in to the fall rather than just knowing who the starters are.
— Find a Second Wide Receiver: R.J. Shelton and Monty Madaris’ graduations leave a big hole in the pass-catching game to say the least. Combine those two losses with the fact that the quarterback position is an open battle and you have a really interesting spring happening for the MSU offense.
Donnie Corley broke out huge in his first season in East Lansing, but in order for him to be effective, someone has to emerge as a secondary pas-catching option.
Outside of Corley, only one other returning receiver caught more than 10 passes last season was Felton Davis III. He had just 12 receptions for 150 yards and one touchdown.
Youth is likely to be served at wide receiver, so we’ll also be watching for names like Trishton Jackson, Brandon Sowards and Justin Layne this spring. If they make big strides this offense could be really dangerous heading in to the fall.
Defensive To-Do List:
— Get the Defensive Line Right: While the offensive production got a lot of the attention this past season, the reality is MSU got its butt kicked often on the defensive side of the ball as well. MSU averaged less than one sack per game last year, ranking 124th in the country in sacks…all of it happening with some of the better “talent” in the Big Ten too.
That all changes with a youth movement overall along the defensive line this season. Freshmen Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams became the go-to players on the interior as the season went on and appear to have a bright future. However, are there enough playmakers at defensive end?
Demetrious Cooper and Robert Bowers don’t exactly jump off the page, although they show potential. Names like Josh King and Auston Robertson came highly regarded in the 2016 recruiting class, and if they can produce this spring playing time is certainly there for the taking.
— Safety Help: MSU took a massive hit when Monte Nicholson left for the NFL a year early. The Spartans already knew Demetrious Cox was gone as a senior. If there has been a position that hasn’t needed much in the way of transition it has been safety, where a number of quality players have come through. Who could be next in line?
Khari Willis is a superstar in the making, after putting up 30 tackles and two pass break ups as a sophomore. Fellow sophomore Grayson Miller was the other safety in MSU’s two-deep last season, so they are likely to get the first crack. But, what happens beyond them, because often times teams are only as good as their depth is.
It could be time for last season’s 4-star recruit Demetric Vance to start making an impression, and we’ll also watch to see how Kenny Lyke produces as the spring goes on (if we can find anything out before the spring game).
— Find a Leader on the Field: Few could pinpoint how things went so wrong for the Spartans in 2016, but one suggestion that has some weight is that this team was lacking true leadership on the field. No one seemed to be able to right what was going wrong no matter what was tried. MSU’s defense was uncharacteristically bad last season and this offseason there needs to be a lot of soul-searching and leadership emerging to make sure that doesn’t happen again. With so much of the 2016 defense off to the NFL or graduated, this spring should be all about finding that leadership core.
Could Chris Frey or Cooper be the answer in leadership? After all, they are the only two senior hold-overs from last season’s starting lineup. Or will the youngsters stepping up to bigger roles on the depth chart also take control of leadership roles?
As much as the answers at specific positions are important, it will be key to watch the chemistry and leadership of this team coming out of spring ball. Just don’t expect us in the general public or media-sphere to know what is going on thanks to the media blackout right now.