Hot topics for Dantonio: Revamped offense, division bid

Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Tyler O'Connor

The Big Ten season unofficially kicks off today with the annual media days in Chicago, and while Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio doesn’t talk until Tuesday, that doesn’t lessen the interest in the defending conference champions.

As has become the norm, much of the focus over the next two days likely will land on Ohio State and Michigan, but astute observers will be sure not to pass over the coach who has won two conference title games in the last three years, is the only Big Ten coach to beat Urban Meyer and has finished No. 6 or better in the nation each of the last three seasons.

The Spartans have plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball if they expect to win another East Division title and that leads to a fair share of questions Dantonio might face on Tuesday.

Here’s a guess at what some of the more popular queries might be.

Will Tyler O’Connor be the starting quarterback?

If his performance in the spring game is any indication, the fifth-year senior seems to be the clear choice to fill the shoes of Connor Cook, the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history who is now with the Oakland Raiders.

O’Connor was the catalyst to Michigan State’s victory over Ohio State last season as Cook sat with an injured shoulder, and there’s no doubt O’Connor has the experience and the trust of the players in the locker room.

Junior Damion Terry hasn’t seemed to come close to surpassing O’Connor and it will be interesting to see what progress redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke has made.

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Can Donnie Corley and a talented group of freshman receivers make an immediate impact?

Corley shined during the spring and fellow freshman Cam Chambers scored in the spring game. Justin Layne and Trishton Jackson are on campus now to form an impressive quartet. How much this group can provide could be a key factor in the success of the Michigan State offense. Senior R.J. Shelton is the only receiver back with extensive experience, while fifth-year senior Monty Madaris and sophomore Felton Davis have seen limited work. Plenty is expected from redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart.

Will a revamped offensive line be able to lead the way for a talented group of running backs?

The Spartans lost three starters to the NFL, including All-Americans Jack Conklin at left tackle and Jack Allen at center. Add in right guard Donavon Clark and it’s a significant hole up front for the Spartans.

There are plenty of combinations offensive line coach Mark Staten can go with and there seems little doubt junior Brian Allen and fifth-year senior Kodi Kieler will be at the heart of it. Allen is likely the starting center and Kieler at right tackle, but they both have the versatility to move around. Expect Brandon Clemons to be a starter — likely at guard — in his sixth season and sophomore David Beedle can play inside or out. Senior tackle Miguel Machado is expected to take a leap and junior Dennis Finley should be back from last season’s broken leg.

Will the defensive front overcome significant losses?

Ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas as well as tackle Joel Heath are in the NFL while tackle Craig Evans and end Montez Sweat are no longer in the program.

Junior Demetrius Cooper will have his chance to stand out replacing Calhoun, while junior Malik McDowell could be an All-American at tackle. He’ll get help from graduate transfer Kevin Williams, and redshirt freshman Raequan Williams is an up-and-comer on the inside.