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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: A look at the 2016 offense

Changes is the name of the game for the Michigan State Spartans’ offense in 2016. That much was evident as Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge and Jack Allen were all senior leaders last season and thus gone for 2016.

However, also losing All-American left tackle Jack Conklin ensured that things were really going to be different for the Spartans offense this season.

Given all the change, where do the Spartans turn to for strength and leadership on offense? Who will carry this group if needed? Let’s take a look at the Michigan State Spartans offense for 2016.

 

Quarterback

This was supposed to be a two-man battle in spring football, and that’s exactly what we got. However, it wasn’t the players most thought would end the spring camp competing — instead, it was expected competitor Tyler O’Connor and the unheralded and unheard of Brian Lewerke who emerged as the two on top of the depth chart at the end of spring ball.

O’Connor seems like the natural fit for the position and proved it with the most consistent spring, while expected competitor Damion Terry fell off as spring went along and failed to progress. In stepped Lewerke, a redshirt freshman with all the tools to be an interesting long-term option.

Don’t be shocked to see O’Connor get the job even if Dantonio plays games with naming a “starter” ahead of the season opener. Also don’t be shocked to see Lewerke to get a major look after an impressive spring behind center.

There’s also great potential in 4-star recruit Messiah deWeaver, who came to campus early and flashed a ton to like in a spring that saw plenty of growing pains and flashes of brilliance in the youngster. Expect 2016 to be a stop-gap year en route to the next long-term starter for the Spartans.

Running Back

Welcome to stardom…or at least potential stardom, LJ Scott. After pegging him to be the breakout player in our preview last year, Scott didn’t disappoint. He led the team in rushing yards (699) and touchdowns (11) after the Spartans finally stopped playing musical chairs at running back midway through the season.

Not a shabby freshman campaign by any standard, but Scott only had one 100-yard game as a freshman. Don’t expect a repeat of that, as he’ll be looking at 20-25 carries on a consistent basis this season, and that should mean plenty of 100-yard days ahead for the sophomore.

Gerald Holmes and Madre London provide some really good depth, and one could do far worse than that threesome at running back. However, this group’s totals may be as dependent on a changing offensive line as much as their own talent.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

This is where the real fun begins, as no position group lost more this offseason than that of the pass catchers. Not only is Burbridge gone, but so are DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. and that means two new starters and some more depth must emerge at this key position alongside a new quarterback.

Luckily, the Spartans seem to have struck gold on the recruiting trail the past two seasons. Redshirt freshman Felton Davis III emerged this spring as a really intriguing option in replacing Burbridge’s production, but most importantly there is still R.J. Shelton in the mix.

The senior is simply a dynamic option in the pass game and few defenses have figured out how to stop him. Last season, Shelton finished with 43 receptions for 503 yards and four touchdowns. Don’t be shocked to see those numbers rocket up as he’s the most experienced and reliable option entering the season.

While a lot of press went the way of Davis III, another redshirt freshman, Darrell Stewart, also looks poised to gain a starting position. There’s also the two true freshmen that entered school for the spring semester in 4-star recruits Donnie Corley and Cameron Chambers.

If spring game roster drafts are any indication, then Corley being taken as the first wide receiver off the board should tell you all you need to know about what his fellow players think of his skill set.

This group is dripping with a ton of potential, and if the QB situation can be figured out it could be a very tough year on opposing secondaries.

Add in perhaps the Big Ten’s most intriguing player at tight end, in senior Josiah Price, and things get really interesting in the passing game. Price enters his final season in East Lansing having put up 66 receptions, 851 yards and 16 touchdowns in his career already. He will likely be leaned on more as the young receivers look to get acclimated to the college game, and his presence can’t be underestimated.

Offensive Line

For all the offseason talk of the “big losses”on the offensive line (and no doubt losing an All-American is big), as we pointed out yesterday…this wasn’t exactly a world-beating group of five last season. Finishing ninth in rushing offense and seventh in sacks allowed is far below the usual standard for MSU’s OL.

Getting to hit the reset button may not be the worst thing in the world for the group that has really changed MSU’s fortunes under Dantonio.

Anchoring the line may well be former center Jack Allen’s little brother, Brian Allen. He moved to center during spring practice and appears locked in there, allowing expected center Benny McGowan to slide out to left guard next to the younger Allen.

Protecting the QB blindside will be an interesting proposition, as it appears Dennis Finley, who is returning from a broken leg, has grabbed a stranglehold on the starting job.

There is a returning starter to help ease the transition in senior right tackle Kodi Kieler, which should help a line in need of serious leadership going forward.

The good news for this group is that it looked stronger in the run game all spring and was getting in groove as a group by the end of spring ball. Carrying that momentum forward and not slipping back is going to be key with a new signal caller behind them.

Questions Needing Answers in Fall Camp:

Are the young wide receivers ready from the jump?

There may not be a more hyped group of young receivers in the Big Ten than the ones Michigan State have at their disposal. However, hype doesn’t always equal production (just ask the guys from Ann Arbor) and that has to be guarded against with this young group.

Four freshmen are likely to play key roles in a changing wide receiver group, and two of them could be true freshmen. No matter the talent level, the jump up to college football can be roughest on wide receivers. MSU needs them to overcome any jitters and be consistent contributors if this group is going to be dynamic in 2016.

Adding in a quarterback starting for the first time as “the guy” and there is plenty of trepidation to go along with a lot of potential. If the wide receivers and QB can get in sync early on then MSU’s offense may not miss a beat and may be even more dangerous than it was a season ago.

Is Change Good for the MSU offensive line?

We’ve harped on the sub-standard performance of the Spartans offensive line last season, and while logic would tell you losing three big-time performers along the offensive line would also equal trouble for the year ahead…that’s not quite the case this time around.

MSU could well be poised to rebuild and regroup with a nice core of Brian Allen and Benny McGowan up the middle and with an intriguing prospect replacing Jack Conklin at left tackle.

While the names may not be as big as last season, this group as a whole could be much more adept at doing what is needed to get the run game going. However, it needs to show more consistency this fall after flashing good potential in the spring but being inconsistent in both the run and pass protection games.

 

Our Projected Starting Lineup:

WR-X: Felton Davis III, So.
WR-Z: R.J. Shelton, Sr.
WR-Y: Darrell Stewart, RS Fr.
LT: Dennis Finley, RS Jr.
LG: Benny McGowan, RS Sr.
C: Brian Allen, Jr.
RG: Brandon Clemons, RS Sr.
RT: Kodi Kieler, Sr,
TE: Josiah Price, Sr.
QB: Tyler O’Connor, Sr.
RB: LJ Scott, So.

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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