East Lansing — For better or worse, Michigan State will play its annual spring game on Saturday, and while there will be plenty of attention paid to who isn’t on the field, there are plenty of things to watch that relate directly to football, as well.
As coach Mark Dantonio made clear early in the week, it hasn’t been “business as usual” around the Spartans program. Ever since it was announced on Feb. 9 that three players were at the center of a sexual assault investigation, football has taken a back seat.
And while the investigation and announcement of possible charges has dragged on, the Spartans began spring practice on Feb. 25 in relative silence.
The news conference held by Dantonio on Tuesday provided no real answers regarding the investigation and he opted to deflect any football questions until after Saturday’s spring game.
That leaves plenty up in the air when the game kicks off at 3 p.m. at Spartan Stadium, as a team that has been dealing with turmoil off the field is also trying to bounce back from a 3-9 season in 2016.
Here are some of the key storylines heading into the spring game:
There’s no doubt the three players suspended because of the investigation won’t be on the field.
But Dantonio said this week there are other players suspended because of unrelated issues, however, he would not identify those players or why they are suspended. The result will be a group of players not on the field without any real idea of why.
It might protect the players who are involved in the investigation, but it paints a broad brush over other players who are not. It’s far from an ideal situation, but Dantonio said any thought of not playing the game or closing it to the public was never seriously considered.
And none of it will likely answer the questions of attrition Dantonio said back in January would be certain. The departure of linebacker Jon Reschke because of an issue with a former player and the decision by offensive lineman Thiyo Lukusa to give up football are public because those players chose to make them so. If there are any others, Dantonio hasn’t said, and that just adds to the speculation of why some players might not be playing.
When it comes to the players on the field, one of the biggest questions is how healthy is Brian Lewerke and is he playing like the No. 1 quarterback Dantonio basically said he was following the 2016 season? He showed flashes as a redshirt freshman and likely would have been the starter over the final four games had he not broken his leg late in the loss to Michigan.
But even with that injury and the presence of now fifth-year senior Damion Terry and redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, Dantonio said Lewerke is the guy. How he plays Saturday could be the first indication whether or not Lewerke remains the guy heading into the summer and preseason camp or if Terry and deWeaver will make any sort of push to change the pecking order.
Success on offense starts up front, and Michigan State will be juggling the offensive line with at least five who saw regular playing time last season now either graduated or no longer with the program. That will leave plenty of opportunity as Brian Allen enters his senior season as the likely starting center and questions everywhere else. The spring game will be the first chance for guard Tyler Higby to get back in the mix after a solid redshirt freshman season that was cut short by injury while sophomore-to-be Cole Chewins is expected to make a big jump at tackle.
The new faces to keep an eye on include Matt Allen, Luke Campbell and AJ Arcuri, all who redshirted last season. Junior David Beedle should also play a key role while there’s always a shot that tackle Dennis Finley could bounce back after a difficult 2016 when he was working to recover from a broken leg.
The front seven on defense has undergone its share of change since the season ended and figuring out who might step in could get a bit clearer after the spring game. With tackle Malik McDowell off to the draft and the graduation of end Evan Jones, the Spartans will rely on tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk, who had solid freshmen seasons in the middle. Out on the edge it’s more up in the air as the status of senior-to-be Demetrius Cooper remains unknown after an off-the-field incident last fall and MSU relied heavily on true freshmen in 2016.
Riley Bullough is off to the NFL and Jon Reschke left the program.
That leaves outside linebacker Chris Frey as the leader of the group but Saturday’s game will give middle linebacker Joe Bachie a chance to shine after seeing mostly special teams action as a true freshman. It will also be a chance for outside linebacker Tyriq Thompson to make another step heading into his sophomore season, as well as Brandon Randle, who redshirted in 2016.
The most wide-open spots are likely in the secondary as safeties Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox are gone, as well as cornerback Darian Hicks. At safety, there will be plenty of competition as Grayson Miller, Khari Willis and Matt Morrissey — all entering their junior season — should have first crack though it will be interesting to see the progress made by sophomore David Dowell and junior Jalen Watts-Jackson.
At cornerback, oft-injured Vayante Copeland will get another chance to show he can live up to his potential while Justin Layne appears locked into defense after making the move from wide receiver early last year as a freshman. Tyson Smith could also make a jump as a junior while Austin Andrews drew praise while redshirting last season.
While the spring game is a chance for plenty of players to make a name for themselves, there are three true freshmen who have already enrolled and will get a jump on the rest of the 2017 class.
There are plenty of expectations for wide receiver Hunter Rison, and defensive back Josiah Scott. Tight end Jack Camper might also get a shot at early playing time as the Spartans graduated Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles.
Sept. 2 — Bowling Green
Sept. 9 — Western Michigan
Sept. 23 — Notre Dame
Sept. 30 — Iowa
Oct. 7 — at Michigan
Oct. 14 — at Minnesota
Oct. 21 — Indiana
Oct. 27 — at Northwestern
Nov. 4 — Penn State
Nov. 11 — at Ohio State
Nov. 18 —Maryland
Nov. 25 — at Rutgers