Quarterback quandary headlines MSU’s offseason

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s been a while since Michigan State has had to worry about who was going to play quarterback.

But coming off of its Cotton Bowl loss to Alabama, that’s exactly the position Michigan State is in heading into the offseason as Connor Cook heads off to the NFL, taking his 34-5 mark and program-record 9,194 passing yards and 71 touchdowns with him.

Not since the 2013 season has there been a quarterback battle for the Spartans, and Cook eventually won that.

This one will be intriguing and will almost certainly have its roots in winter conditioning, run through spring practice and go into preseason camp. Tyler O’Connor will likely be the early favorite, a fifth-year senior to be that has the knowledge of the offense no other quarterback does.

He’ll be pushed by Damion Terry, who will be a junior, and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke. True freshman Messiah deWeaver is also sure to grab his share of headlines.

O’Connor’s career numbers are limited, much like Terry’s, but he has shown his glimpses. While he and Terry played in the win over Ohio State, it was O’Connor that did the heavy lifting, throwing a touchdown pass and picking up key first downs with his feet.

He’ll be working on winning the job almost immediately.

“The biggest thing is I have to step up my leadership and it’s not that people don’t respect me, but that is something I gotta do,” O’Connor said. “It’s hard to lead from the back. It’s hard to sit behind someone who has won the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, Big Ten championships and try to lead in front of him.”

Terry has played his share, but he threw only seven passes in 2015, completing just two. He was the crowd favorite as a freshman in 2013 and might be the most athletic. Lewerke redshirted, but feedback from practice this season was positive.

Best bet at this point, however, is that O’Connor gets the nod to open the season.

“I feel like I have a great grasp of the offense and reading defenses and things like that,” he said, “so I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

Running back

Four different players saw action this season and three started. It wasn’t a rotation that ultimately worked and the Spartans will likely be better off narrowing the carries down to a couple of players.

LJ Scott and Madre London might be the most talented and each had his moments in 2015. Scott led MSU as a freshman with 699 yards and 11 touchdowns while London, a redshirt freshman, started the first six games before a leg injury limited him to 500 yards on 119 carries. Both should get plenty of carries next season, but depth will be big again as Gerald Holmes started seven games as a sophomore and scored eight touchdowns.

Wide receivers

The Spartans lose two key players in Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. as R.J. Shelton enters his senior season as Michigan State’s most reliable receiver. True freshman Felton Davis III had his only two catches in the Big Ten title game and the Cotton Bowl and figures to see a bigger role in 2016, as should senior Monty Madaris.

Michigan State could also get a boost from true freshmen Cameron Chambers, who enrolled early, and Justin Layne, a highly sought-after prospect. West Bloomfield’s Trishton Jackson could also make an early impact.

Tight ends

Paul Lang is gone after having his best year as a senior, but the Spartans are still in good shape as Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles enter their senior seasons. Price is the program’s all-time leader in touchdowns for a tight end and Lyles has the athleticism few tight ends do.

Dylan Chmura enters his junior year and has yet to see any significant action. The same goes for Matt Sokol, who will be a sophomore.

Offensive line

With left tackle Jack Conklin heading to the NFL, that’s three starters leaving along with All-American center Jack Allen and right guard Donavon Clark. Right tackle Kodi Kieler returns for his senior season and left guard Brian Allen likely moves from left guard to center as a junior.

Tackle Dennis Finley will try and work his way back from a broken leg while Benny McGowan and David Beedle could see more playing time for a unit that will need its young players to come along quickly.

Defensive line

The Spartans suffer their share of losses here, but they also have depth and talent to take over. Ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas are gone, as is tackle Joel Heath. Tackle Damon Knox is attempting to get a sixth year and would join junior Malik McDowell in the middle while junior Demetrius Cooper is primed for a bigger role at end.

Plenty of young players have been pushing, as well, including sophomore tackle Craig Evans, while another solid group of freshmen will make a case to see the field early.

Linebacker

Darien Harris had his best season as a senior but Michigan State should be in good shape with middle linebacker Riley Bullough back as a senior and Ed Davis expected to be healthy after missing the entire season. Junior Jon Reschke stood out this season and junior Chris Frey had his share of big plays, too.

There will be backups looking to get on the field, as well, including sophomore Andrew Dowell, who saw time as a true freshman, junior Shane Jones and sophomore Byron Bullough.

Defensive backs

The Spartans had their issues in 2015 but expect their young players to take a big step this offseason, something that could improve greatly if sophomore cornerback Vayante Copeland is healthy after fracturing a vertebrae in his neck. Senior Darian Hicks expects to have a big role at cornerback while safety has plenty of depth with senior Demetrious Cox, junior Montae Nicholson and sophomores Khari Willis and Grayson Miller.

Tyson Smith saw action at cornerback as a true freshman while Josh Butler and David Dowell were redshirted but are names to keep an eye on.

Special teams

Kicker Michael Geiger was solid in the second half of the year and enters his senior season feeling healthy and confident while punter Jake Hartbarger overcame some early inconsistencies and enters his sophomore season firmly in control of the spot.

Long snapper Taybor Pepper must be replaced and the Spartans must find a new punt returner with Macgarrett Kings Jr. gone.

matt.charboneau@detroitnews.com

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