East Lansing — Two weeks from now, Michigan State will hit the practice field in preparation for the 2017 opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 4.
To say the Spartans are looking forward to focusing on football would be an understatement following an offseason of turmoil that saw the dismissal of four players involved in two separate sexual assault cases as well as the departure of a handful of others, including projected starters like linebacker Jon Reschke, cornerback Vayante Copeland and offensive lineman Thiyo Lukusa.
Needless to say, the roster has taken its share of hits — not exactly the best formula for a team that is trying to bounce back from a dismal three-win season that came on the heels of an appearance in the College Football Playoffs.
There’s no doubt the Spartans are expected to turn things around. How quickly they contend again in the Big Ten East is up for debate, but doing so this season likely will be hindered by some issues on the depth chart.
Michigan State will be young and inexperienced in several spots on the field, a fact emphasized by the losses suffered over the last few months. As the Spartans prepare to open preseason camp, here is a look at some of the more pressing on-field concerns.
While Michigan State is deep and talented at running back — senior Gerald Holmes along with juniors LJ Scott and Madre London will all contribute — and believe they’re set at quarterback with sophomore Brian Lewerke taking over, it all starts up front along the offensive line.
Only senior center Brian Allen has extensive experience and could be primed for a big season. Junior David Beedle has moved around the line and likely will start at right guard while sophomore Tyler Higby is slotted at left guard following a solid 2016 that was cut short by a broken ankle. The tackle spots are the tougher ones to gauge. Sophomore Cole Chewins likely takes over on the left side after starting three games last season on the right side while redshirt freshman Luke Campbell has the early edge on the right side, though senior Dennis Finley could factor in if he’s fully recovered from a broken leg suffered in 2015.
Offensive line coach Mark Staten doesn’t stick with just five guys, however, meaning others will play a role. That group likely includes redshirt freshmen Matt Allen and A.J. Arcuri and there’s a chance a true freshman like four-star recruit Kevin Jarvis could enter the rotation.
Receivers, tight ends
Identifying the playmakers in the passing game also will be of importance with the graduation of wide receiver R.J. Shelton and the dismissal of Donnie Corley.
If spring is any indication, sophomore receiver Trishton Jackson could be at the top of the list while classmate Cam Chambers will get his first shot at playing time after redshirting in 2016. Junior Felton Davis has size but needs to stay healthy while a pair of true freshmen — Hunter Rison and Cody White — will get every chance to make an immediate impact.
The experience level at tight end isn’t much better after Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles graduated. Junior Matt Sokol will get plenty of work while Noah Davis should get a shot after redshirting last season. True freshman Matt Dotson was a top recruit while fellow freshman Jack Camper enrolled early, meaning both could get a shot at early playing time.
Some of Michigan State’s biggest questions come on the defensive side of the ball, and for a team that had only 11 sacks in 2016, going into the season unsure of who will step into the starting roles at defensive end is far from ideal. But Josh King and Auston Robertson are both gone after playing as true freshmen, leaving the Spartans scrambling a bit. There’s also some question to the status of senior Demetrius Cooper, who was involved in an off-field incident last fall. However, he was included on MSU’s roster released in mid-June.
Cooper brings the most experience but has been short on production, producing just 8.5 sacks in his career. After that, the group is young and untested with former walk-on Kenny Willekes a possible starter following an impressive spring. Others that could get a shot include juniors Dillon Alexander and Robert Bowers as well as sophomore Justice Alexander. Redshirt freshman Mufi Hill-Hunt could also get a shot after spending most of last season recovering from a knee injury.
The freshman class could get a shot, as well, with Jacub Panasiuk the most likely of the group that includes DeAri Todd and Lashawn Paulino-Bell, who is recovering from an off-season Jet Ski accident.
The back end of the defense also suffered its share of losses through graduation and player departures. The cornerback spot might be the most tenuous as the likely starters are sophomore Justin Layne — who could also play receiver — and true freshman Josiah Scott, who enrolled early and played well in the spring. After that, the best options are sophomore Josh Butler and one-time linebacker T.J. Harrell. Safeties Jalen Watts-Jackson and David Dowell can move over while two freshmen — Emmanuel Flowers and Tre Person — will get a look.
The situation is tougher because of the status of junior Tyson Smith, who revealed this summer that he suffered a stroke late last season. He’s still officially with the team, but there’s been no indication whether he’ll be able to continue playing.
Safety is a bit better off, even with the loss of Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson to the NFL. Juniors Grayson Miller and Khari Willis have starting experience while fellow junior Matt Morrissey has seen plenty of playing time, as well. Dowell and Watts-Jackson offer depth and versatility while Austin Andrews drew rave reviews while redshirting in 2016.
It’s not thought of much until the game is on the line, but the Spartans must find a new kicker after four years of Michael Geiger. Matt Coghlin was one of the top kicking recruits in the 2016 class and will get his shot after redshirting last season.
However, the job won’t be handed to him as true freshman Cole Hahn comes in with a chance to push for the job. Fifth-year senior Brett Scanlon — a former transfer from Western Michigan — is also on the roster and provides depth for the Spartans.