Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo break down Michigan and Michigan State for the 2017 college football season. Detroit News
East Lansing — They’ve officially changed their designation from “hunted” to “hunter” this season, not that they had much choice in the matter. And after things blew up in their face a year ago, they’re promising better chemistry this time around.
But as Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio posed the open-ended question to his players the other day on the eve of the 2017 season — “Who are we?” he asked — he must know where the answers have to start.
Not with his young roster, which includes 22 freshman-eligible players on the initial depth chart. Instead, it’ll be with his own coaching staff, which remained intact — again — in spite of all the understandable criticism that followed a terrible 3-9 finish a year ago and an even more calamitous offseason for the Spartans’ football program.
All nine assistant coaches remained in place, with only some slight adjustments in day-to-day responsibilities. Mark Snyder is working with the defensive ends now, and Mark Tressel has returned to coaching linebackers. Mark Staten has a new title — assistant head coach — and some added duties as recruiting coordinator. But otherwise, not much is different.
The reasons are simple, they all insist. One down year — even one that plumbed the depths like 2016 — doesn’t erase the 90 wins over the last decade, or a 36-5 record the previous three seasons, including a national playoff berth. As Harlon Barnett, Michigan State’s associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator, puts it, “That was one year. … All of a sudden we can’t coach?”
No, that’s not the question. Not here, anyway. But what is up for debate is just how capable this coaching staff is of adapting and adjusting. Because while there’s no arguing the challenges that await this season — and beyond, especially in a Big Ten East division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan — there’s also no denying this: Dantonio & Co. simply can’t afford another year marked by intransigence.
“Well, like I told our (defensive) staff in the offseason, actually even before last season, people study the champs,” said Barnett, who has been part of Dantonio’s staff since he arrived in East Lansing in 2007. “We were the champs. We’ve had a pretty good run here in the Big Ten. And so they’ve studied. Everybody’s calling around, ‘How do you attack Michigan State?’ …
“And there were certain things that I thought we did become a little predictable on over the years. So, now we have to change with the times and roll with the times and we will.”
As for how they will — or how well they will — that remains to be seen. Change for change’s sake doesn’t mean much. Nor does change guarantee progress, particularly with a roster like this one, with so much youth and inexperience — and so little depth in some areas — being counted on all at once.
Clearly, though, change is needed.
‘You can’t stay status quo’
Some will come with the personnel, most notably at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Brian Lewerke is the unquestioned starter heading into the season. Dantonio made that clear months ago, and he isn’t shy about touting the quarterback’s talents, whether it’s his strong arm and quick release or his athleticism and poise.
Lewerke, whose debut was cut short by a broken leg last October, had a good grasp of the offense coming into camp this summer.
And he says he has an even better one now, understanding his reads and figuring out when to go where. (“All I am is just the guy who gets the ball to the playmaker,” he said.) But it’s Dave Warner’s job, along with co-coordinator Jim Bollman, to figure out the rest.
It doesn’t take much time surveying online message boards to figure out how diehard Michigan State fans feel about that prospect. But whether they’re second-guessing the running back rotations or screaming about that two-point conversion play call at the end of last season’s Ohio State loss, Warner says they should know they’re not alone.
The coaching staff spent the entire winter — and with no bowl game, this was an unusually long offseason for the Spartans — reassessing what went wrong and what they need to do to make things right.
“You can’t stay status quo,” Warner said. “Everybody is trying new things and trying to figure you out from a defensive point of view.
“So we’ve tweaked some things and when we get to those things, we’ll kind of wait and see.”
So are we, I suppose, though undoubtedly some of those tweaks will involve Lewerke taking advantage of his legs with some zone-read option plays.
“He’s probably the most athletic quarterback we’ve had here in our time,” Warner said. “It’s just a matter of picking and choosing how often you want to use those.”
‘We’re going to surprise’
Likewise, it’ll matter how Barnett and the rest of the defensive staff decides to combat those run/pass options, starting with Saturday’s season opener against Bowling Green.
Michigan State managed just 11 sacks all season, the third-worst total among the 128 FBS teams. They also ranked 111th in tackles for loss, 112th in turnovers forced and 111th in red-zone defense.
And though there’s some returning talent up front, led by sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk, there’s also a serious lack of depth with Malik McDowell — who proved to be a disruptive force on and off the field — bolting for the NFL and Josh King and Auston Roberston both dismissed from the program due to sexual assault charges. So it may take some creativity to create some chaos.
“But I think we’re going to surprise some people,” Barnett said. “I feel good about not only the personnel but some of the things that we’ve changed schematically throughout the course of the offseason. …
“We’re not tweaking so much that we don’t know who we are. We’re still going to fly around and be tough, fast, physical and aggressive. It’s not so dramatic that the guys are thinking ‘Whoa, what is this new stuff?’ No, it’s not like that.
“But it is to the point where it’s going to change up a few things where offenses are going to have to second-guess what they’re going to do against Michigan State.”
And if not?
Well, it’s not hard to guess what’ll happen then.