Henning: Forced youth movement deepens MSU’s problems

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Double trouble, this season at Michigan State in which a football team’s sudden dependency on rookies is robbing them of experience now, and down the road.

Mark Dantonio’s program had seemed after nine years to be more of an automobile assembly line, with new models forged from the same sturdy structural material that had delivered past champions and bowl-game victors.

There would be some subtle changes in cosmetics — older players leaving and familiar and accomplished names replacing them.

It was almost as if the Spartans were triumphing with interchangeable parts. Dependable. Seasoned. A chain unbroken, thanks to meaty recruiting classes and low attrition that allowed Dantonio to build rosters flush with fifth-year seniors.

But no more. Nine freshmen who a year ago were wrapping up high school careers are now in the mix as Michigan State readies Saturday for menacing Michigan at Spartan Stadium.

“You know, we have to deal in the present,” Dantonio said. “I can’t sit there and say, ‘Well, this guy is not going to be playing for us in 2020.’ I have to deal in the present.”

Moving pieces

Presently, the Spartans are so thinned by injuries and some uncommon attrition, they have little choice but to patch with teenagers.

The defensive line is dotted with rookies: Mike Panasiuk at tackle, with Josh King and Auston Robertson working at ends. It’s a front that has been getting hammered against the run and has had a terrible time putting heat on quarterbacks.

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The secondary is another freshmen haven. Kennie Lyke (safety) and Justin Layne (cornerback) have punched-in ahead of schedule and only a year after Michigan State traded in redshirts on Tyson Smith, Grayson Miller and Khari Willis.

Linebacker also needed a bailout. Last week against Maryland, it was Joe Bachie to the rescue, even if Dantonio and his staff winced when an 18-year-old from Brook Park, Ohio, who might have been a difference-maker as late as 2020, was an emergency fill-in for Riley Bullough after Bullough was dismissed for targeting.

Add to the above list an offensive lineman who might have benefited from a year on the scout team (Thiyo Lukusa), and a talented wide receiver (Trishton Jackson) who would figure to have glorious fifth-year pluses, and Michigan State’s raiding of the warehouse for freshmen backups has been costly and potentially damaging to multiple classes and rosters.

Donnie Corley is perhaps an exception. The super-skilled Corley, a wide receiver from Detroit Martin Luther King High, was bound to help Dantonio’s receivers in 2016, and has.

It is also possible, if not probable, Corley will be moving to the NFL following his junior year. It’s another reason Corley almost certainly would have been an instant exception to any freshmen redshirt plans.

Experience preferred

It’s an old axiom in college football: Show me how many talented fifth-year seniors are starting and I’ll show you what kind of autumn’s ahead for your college football team.

Michigan State made the most of fifth-year seniors during its lusty, 2013-15 run that saw it win a Rose Bowl, knock off Baylor in an epic Cotton Bowl, and make it to last season’s College Football Playoffs.

Shilique Calhoun, Jack Conklin, Kurtis Drummond, Keith Mumphery, Marcus Rush, Darien Harris, Joel Heath, Lawrence Thomas, R.J. Williamson, Jeremy Langford, Nick Hill, Mike Sadler, etc. While any of the above might have helped as freshmen, the Spartans got optimum help during their final years in East Lansing, all because of experience, physical maturity, and the fact they hadn’t lost a year of eligibility on the front end.

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Not much Dantonio can do about any of this in 2016. Except drink from a glass half-full.

“Usually when you start playing your true freshmen, you’re actually coaching those guys,” Dantonio said. “They’re getting reps at practice. They’re much more involved, so their ability to progress as a football player becomes much, much greater, as opposed to playing on the scout team, and playing somebody else’s defense. Or, lifting (weights) on Friday mornings and not having pressure on them and not having that sense of responsibility thrown at them right now.”

Anyone could argue that’s precisely why it’s best not to be dipping into a team’s kiddie corps until that sophomore — or, as it can be known, a redshirt freshman — season when kids are older, better-adjusted, and can look forward to a full four autumns of eligibility.

It simply isn’t an option during this bizarre season of football in East Lansing when a Spartans team so accustomed to winning in double digits is stuck with a 2-5 record.

Keep rolling

Dantonio is pragmatist enough to know the future is now.

Then again, it’s not as if he has a choice.

“There’s give and take with this,” he said Tuesday, shooting once more for a bright-side approach to pushing so many rookies onto the field.

“A freshman playing right now will be a much better player next year than a redshirt freshman, usually because he’s got the benefit of this (true freshman) season.

“So, it should pay dividends, although at the end of the day, your fifth year from now, you might be saying: ‘I wish I had so-and-so here.’ But you just have to keep rolling with it.” @Lynn_Henning