East Lansing — While Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talked this week about potential “tweaks” being implemented as the Spartans started spring practice, he also added they won’t be significant.
And at Michigan State, that means the Spartans’ offense will continue to be rooted in running the ball, even with spread offenses and airing the ball out becoming more and more the norm in college football. They’ll throw the ball, that much is certain, but winning the battle up front will be the key.
Michigan State has plenty of options in the running game, but figuring out who is doing the blocking will be a process that likely goes through preseason camp. With tackle Jack Conklin, center Jack Allen and guard Donavon Clark all off to the next level, the Spartans’ offensive line is in a state of flux.
Not that the Spartans can’t handle it considering offensive line coach Mark Staten has routinely rotated as many as eight players in each of the last three seasons. It’s an approach that will likely continue, and one that Dantonio thinks will help.
“Coach Staten has done a great job with this, getting different guys experience to be able to play eight guys and move them in and out of games like that, and that's benefited us when we've had injuries,” Dantonio said. “We've been able to plug in a guy that has significant game experience. So I think we'll still maintain that approach. I think we have those numbers. That's been a good thing for us.”
Senior Kodi Kieler and junior Brian Allen seem like sure things when it comes to significant playing time, but each could be moving around. Kieler started 10 games last season at right tackle and one at left, while Allen started 10 at left guard and two at center. Both are listed as co-starters at center on the spring depth chart, while Allen is also listed at left guard with senior Benny McGowan and Kieler is listed with senior Miguel Machado at right tackle.
McGowan can also play center while Machado is listed as the co-starter at right guard with Brandon Clemons, who is applying for a sixth year of eligibility. At left tackle, sophomore David Beedle is listed as the co-starter with junior Dennis Finley, who is recovering from a broken leg.
Throw in potential up-and-comers like redshirt freshmen Cole Chewins and Tyler Higby, and there could be plenty of different combinations by the time Michigan State kicks off the season against Furman on Sept. 2.
“Guys like Tyler Higby, some of our younger players, Cole Chewins, those guys are redshirt freshman,” Dantonio said. “Noah Listermann, a redshirt freshman, those type of guys, (we have) to see how they've come. It's early in the spring, but I do think that some of those guys have a big upside. David Beedle moved over (from defensive line) last year. I think that's going to pay dividends. Clemons is back for a sixth year, so we've got different pieces in there who we can move people around with game experience, and then also I think it just benefits us to have eight moving around.
“I don't think five anymore is the perfect answer for us. I think eight more is like it.”
Who carries the ball will probably get more headlines, but the Spartans are much more sure of who those players will be. How the carries are divided is another story.
Junior Gerald Holmes is listed as the co-starter with sophomores Madre London and LJ Scott. All three had their moments in 2015 and could be a featured back if needed. The player to keep an eye on is senior Delton Williams, who is also being tried at fullback this spring.
“We have three tailbacks with experience, obviously four when you count Delton,” Dantonio said. “I think he's a football player. I think we have to give him the opportunity to show that. He demonstrated that his first two years, and so this is where we're at right now. Doesn't mean he does not play tailback, it just means that he has an extra opportunity there.”