Henning: Rebuilding Spartan football will not be easy

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Substance is the opposite of illusion. It’s real. It can be trusted.

So went the thinking about Michigan State under Mark Dantonio.

Here was ironclad college football construction. Sturdily built. And built to last.

Until this autumn.

Now it wavers during this monstrous mutation of an autumn that has seen the Spartans — life sometimes makes no sense — lose seven consecutive times after starting 2-0. What’s chilling is that some problems could linger into next season, which looks as if it might be no bargain in East Lansing.

So, before reciting all the issues that somehow coalesced to destroy the Spartans in 2016 — centered on a nearly complete personnel breakdown — it’s necessary to forge achievable, realistic thoughts about next season and not overly focus on a 2016 campaign destroyed by a universal meltdown of Michigan State’s football reactor.

Shoot for a bowl

First goal: Get back to bowl-game status.

Don’t be greedy. Bowls, of any brand, are pure gold.

So, get those offensive and defensive fronts glued together, which is at least within range after the Spartans this year were ravaged by every conceivable ill — injury, youth, lack of depth, etc. Turn this season’s kiddie corps scars into tougher hide that can help Michigan State withstand a nasty schedule next season and at least break even.

Realism now must be part of the picture in East Lansing. And simply qualifying next year for a bowl that somehow stands to be missed in 2016 is Dantonio’s and his team’s humble and primary goal in 2017, like it or not.

Brian Lewerke will be a fine quarterback. Messiah deWeaver will either play in his stead or remain a wonderful understudy. There will be running backs and probably enough young receivers to survive. On defense, linebacker will be strong if the gang can avoid hospitalization and the orthopedist’s office, while the secondary, though young, will have benefited from too much freshman exposure the past two seasons.

So, get it back to 6-6 or 7-5 and enjoy a bowl Michigan State can’t afford to miss. Not when December practices are essential. Not when bowl games are required travel in the minds of recruits Dantonio must secure as this team’s lifeblood and as his signature on a program he had so carefully and brilliantly, it seemed, built.

Michigan State football takes a long, hard fall

Then, work your way back to status Michigan State had ostensibly corralled for the long term during its 2013, ’14, and ’15 seasons.

That won’t be easy. In fact, it will be far less doable than it was when Michigan State for seven of eight years supplanted Michigan as the state’s mixed martial arts football power and twice won a Big Ten championship.

And that’s all because the other guys have gotten so much better.

Michigan is again in step with an even stronger Ohio State as perhaps two of the top four teams in the land. Wisconsin is back to being Wisconsin and has, at the moment, twice Michigan State’s muscle. Penn State has straightened out. Maryland — Maryland — at the moment has the country’s 15th-ranked recruiting class.

Good fortune

Which brings us back to the possible illusion that became part of Michigan State’s stunning story during those dreamy years of 2013-15.

Michigan State took advantage of Michigan’s down years and prospered. The Spartans became Saturday night highlight manufacturers in the way they won close games. They had more than their share of Hollywood finishes that seemed to be the natural dividend for a good program triggering its share of great breaks.

But all the while they often won in fairly unconventional ways. They did it with talent that rarely overwhelmed until it found itself on a football field in East Lansing.

Dantonio here was the master. The rare-gem detector who could uncover potential treasure on the prep level and coach and polish it at East Lansing into pure jewelry.

He was taking care of business in separate and skilled ways. He was keeping his classes intact. Losing few players. Redshirting so many freshmen you wondered if Michigan State’s colors should be rebranded as Green, White, and Crimson.

He had it going. Until he didn’t.

Recruiting is key

A frightful 2013 recruiting class is basic to this year’s collapse. Attrition could be seen, alarmingly, and in only a single instance, when Craig Evans and Montez Sweat were dismissed earlier this year. There went two important people to a defensive front that has been getting mashed each and every Saturday.

That’s why so much rides on Dantonio’s next recruiting haul, which will sign in fewer than 90 days. Can the Spartans maintain their cachet after a debacle of a season? Can Dantonio weld together enough healthy pieces next year to keep kids in redshirts and begin cultivating serious championship contenders in the more distant seasons ahead?

That’s how a program is sustained. That’s in great part how this year’s rendition fell apart. It’s all about personnel, not about coordinators.

Everyone in East Lansing, probably beginning with Dantonio, was chastened, blindsided, rendered incredulous, by what has happened during this bewildering football year at Michigan State.

But it isn’t that deep of a mystery. It’s about players. Michigan State ran out of them in 2016. There has to be a build-up, and at a reasonably dramatic pace, if the Spartans are to reacquaint themselves with championship runs, and if Dantonio is to be reunited with his seemingly bulletproof reputation as an extraordinary college football architect.