East Lansing – Few around the Michigan State football program believed what happened in 2016 was possible under Mark Dantonio.

Back in August, as the coach entered his 10th season, any notion that one of the worst seasons in more than two decades was about to begin would have been scoffed at. After all, the Spartans had just won their second Big Ten title in three years and played in the College Football Playoff.

The talk around East Lansing was “Back2Back,” the mantra Dantonio unveiled at the Big Ten’s media days in Chicago at the end of July.

Of course, it didn’t take long to realize Michigan State wasn’t going to win back-to-back conference championships, and by halfway through the season it was clear just reaching a bowl game looked like a long shot.

A lot of factors contributed to the 3-9 season, one that included just a single Big Ten victory – that coming against an awful Rutgers team. There were NFL players to replace at almost every position and when the injuries started piling up early in the season, that meant plenty of inexperienced players on the field.

It wasn’t all on youth, however, as questionable coaching decisions hurt at various times and the Spartans got little consistent production out of their veteran players, many who played critical roles in last season’s championship.

But, as Dantonio made clear in the minutes after the season-ending loss at Penn State, the work on 2017 was to begin immediately.

With that, here’s a position-by-position look at what the Spartans will be working with as they head into an uncertain offseason of winter conditioning followed by National Signing Day, spring practice, and ultimately preseason camp next August.

Quarterback

Not surprisingly, this position gets most of the attention, and after a season in which the Spartans got little out of their quarterbacks, it makes sense. Replacing Connor Cook, the winningest quarterback in program history, proved to be especially difficult as his primary backup for the previous two seasons, fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor, earned the starting job but never took control. He was impressive in a win at Notre Dame, but the inconsistencies followed as he threw three interceptions the following week in a loss to Wisconsin.

By Week 6, Michigan State turned to redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke, who started the next two games and breathed some life into the offense. However, Lewerke broke his leg in Week 9 against Michigan and was lost for the season. That led to a rotation of O’Connor and junior Damion Terry to close the season.

Odds are Lewerke is ready to go by spring and he’ll likely have the jump on true freshman Messiah deWeaver and Terry, but Terry was effective in his only start at Penn State before leaving with a concussion. His play at least indicates he’ll be more of a factor in the battle than maybe some thought, meaning the spring will be quite a battle between the trio. True freshman Rocky Lombardi should join the mix by preseason camp, but odds are it will come down to Lewerke, deWeaver or Terry.

Running back

The Spartans have depth at this position, but by the end of the season it was clear that LJ Scott was the No. 1 guy. The coaching staff even reflected that on the final depth chart, something they hadn’t all season.

Scott had some issues fumbling early in the season, including one that turned the momentum against Wisconsin, but by the last half of the season he was Michigan State’s most effective offensive weapon, running for more than 100 yards in four of the last six games and finishing six yards shy of 1,000 for the season. Holmes was his usual solid self, scoring five touchdowns and providing the best pass protection among the backs. However, his carries dwindled late in the season as Scott took over. London saw his work drop significantly and did not make the trip to Penn State. It’s been quite the drop for a player who was the starter at the beginning of the 2015 season. The Spartans bring in a pair of freshmen – three-stars Weston Bridges and Darien Clemons – but Scott will be the lead back entering 2017 with Holmes his primary backup.

Fullback will see change as Prescott Line and Delton Williams both graduate. A pair of walk-ons – sophomore Collin Lucas and freshman Reid Burton – are the only returning fullbacks on the roster.

Wide receiver/tight end

Senior R.J. Shelton was Michigan State’s most effective receiver and one of the few seniors who performed on a consistent basis. He played 52 career games and started 23 while serving as the Spartans’ primary kick returner for the past three seasons. Replacing his production will be difficult as there is a steep drop-off in experience among the receiving corps.

Freshman Donnie Corley had a promising start to the season but worked through the normal inconsistencies of a first-year player while also mixing in duties on defense in the second half of the season. He will be expected to take a big leap in 2017, while fellow freshmen Trishton Jackson also flashed late in the season and should see a much bigger role.

The rest of the receivers are question marks. Sophomore Felton Davis battled injuries most of the year and didn’t take much of a step while redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart saw sporadic playing time. Freshman Justin Layne played one game at receiver before moving to cornerback, but he could still come back to offense. Freshman Cam Chambers redshirted but likely will work into a significant role in 2017. Incoming freshmen Hunter Rison and Cody White could get a shot to play as freshmen, especially if Layne stays on defense and Corley continues to split time.

Tight end will also see a shift toward inexperience as Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles graduate. Price caught 21 touchdown passes, more than any tight end in program history, and Lyles was a consistent performer for three seasons. Sophomore Matt Sokol was the only other tight end to see action, catching two passes.

True freshman Noah Davis and transfer Matt Seybert likely will factor in the mix next season, as well as four-star recruit Matt Dotson.

Offensive line

This unit made as much progress throughout the season as any, providing the Spartans with a solid running game for most of the second half. It loses experience with tackle Kodi Kieler, center Benny McGowan and guard Brandon Clemons graduating. But plenty of young players have been able to gain valuable experience, while junior guard/center Brian Allen heads into his final season as the leader of the unit.

Big things are expected of tackle Cole Chewins and guard Tyler Higby, two redshirt freshman who became fixtures on the left side before Higby went down with an ankle injury late in the season. They’ll anchor the left side with Brian Allen likely taking over at center. Sophomore David Beedle moved around a lot and battled injuries but was solid at right guard late in the season while true freshman Thiyo Lukusa showed promise at right tackle.

The Spartans are also expecting contributions from Luke Campbell, Matt Allen and AJ Acuri, three freshmen who redshirted but were working with the second team in practice late in the season. Michigan State is also still hoping for a bounce-back from junior Dennis Finley, who struggled to regain his form after breaking his leg in 2015.

Four-star Kevin Jarvis leads a class of four offensive lineman committed to the Spartans and has the size to make a run at playing his first season.

Defensive line

Michigan State likely loses junior Malik McDowell to the NFL and in doing so watches one of its few difference-makers on defense leave a year early. However, with McDowell missing the last three games of the season, it was another chance for youth to be served as redshirt freshman Raequan Williams and freshman Mike Panasiuk started and showed plenty of promise. The depth will be key as sophomore Gerald Owens and redshirt freshman Kyonta Stallworth could see larger roles. At end, freshman Josh King and Auston Robertson each had flashes in the second half and will be expected to take big jumps. Junior Demetrius Cooper had a disappointing season but got after the quarterback the last couple games. Sophomore Robert Bowers also took advantage late in the season with a couple of starts and half-sack, proving he’ll be a factor heading into 2017.

Walk-on Dillon Alexander played well at end in limited playing time late in the season and freshman Mufi Hill-Hunt could add a big spark at end after playing well in limited action last spring as he worked back from a knee injury.

Michigan State is bringing in three defensive ends already – Donovan Winter, Lashawn Paulino and Jacub Panasiuk – and could add another before Signing Day.

Linebacker

This looked to be Michigan State’s strength headed into the season, and while the play of the linebackers was steady, it was rarely spectacular. Injuries didn’t help as junior Jon Reschke was lost for the season after Week 3 and senior Ed Davis never regained his form after missing all of 2015 with a knee injury. Senior middle linebacker Riley Bullough also missed three games with a shoulder injury.

But Reschke should be ready by spring while junior Chris Frey led the Spartans in tackles. Sophomore Andrew Dowell was inconsistent but has the athleticism to be a playmaker on the outside. Freshman Joe Bachie played well in limited action while sophomore Byron Bullough also played well before injuries plagued him late. Junior Shane Jones provides a steady hand and can play any of the three positions while redshirt freshman Tyriq Thompson should see his playing time rise significantly in 2017.

Brandon Randle was close to playing on several occasions before ultimately redshirting, but he’ll also get a shot to play on the outside.

Secondary

This might be the most unstable group on the team as 10 different players started this season and a handful more saw significant time. Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks are gone and safety Montae Nicholson will be the lone returning starter. From there, the safety battle will be intense between Grayson Miller, Khari Willis and Matt Morrissey, who will all be juniors. Redshirt freshman David Dowell has also played some safety, as has sophomore Jalen Watts-Jackson.

The cornerback spot is just as up in the air. Sophomore Vayante Copeland can be a shut-down corner but has yet to make it through a full season while sophomore Tyson Smith also missed the last three games. Layne started four of the last five games and could grab one starting spot while redshirt freshman Josh Butler was up and down in his brief playing time. Redshirt freshman Kaleel Gaines could play both spots while freshman Austin Andrews redshirted but was working with the second team late in the season.

A pair of three-star recruits are committed, including Josiah Scott and Dominque Long. Each could have a chance to play for a group that is searching for stability.

Special teams

With kicker Michael Geiger graduating, odds are the main duties will fall to Matt Coghlin, a highly-recruited kicker from Cincinnati who redshirted in 2016. Former transfer Brett Scanlon could push Coghlin. Sophomore Jake Hartbarger returns as the punter and continues to work for consistency.

In the return game, a replacement will be needed for Shelton on kickoffs. Late in the season, Corley took a few turns while Trishton Jackson is an option. The punt returns have been handled by sophomore Brandon Sowards, but don’t be surprised if the Spartans look for more playmaking there and give Jackson or even Darrell Stewart a shot.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau

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