Seniors help set stage for MSU’s future

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

San Diego — As Michigan State was wrapping up its final practice of the season on Tuesday night, there was a different feeling.

It was the last practice in preparation for Thursday night’s Holiday Bowl matchup with Washington State, but it was the last practice ever for 15 seniors, the group that has seen Michigan State at the highest of highs, rode the roller coaster to last season’s depths and propelled back to where it is today.

Michigan State running back Gerald Holmes (24) not only was part of last season’s 3-9 effort, he also was part of the 2013 team that won the Rose Bowl.

The emotional peaks and valleys have been open for all to see, but at the end of that last practice, with few cameras around, the seniors made their final farewell, going through a line formed by the rest of the team and shaking hands and offering hugs.

“So surreal that I completed my last ever practice tonight as a Spartan,” quarterback Damion Terry posted on Twitter. “Michigan State University means everything to me and I’m so grateful for all of the memories & people the school has blessed me with.”

A few other photos surfaced of players embracing.

It was an important moment, coach Mark Dantonio said.

“I think any time you take the jersey off for the last time, or practice with your teammates, you start to go through emotions, you’ve got to get closure,” Dantonio said on the eve of the Holiday Bowl. “We try to make that special for them at the end of our practice and it becomes an emotional experience for some of our guys. Those guys have been — the playoff game, had some great moments here and we’re just looking for another life moment for them.”

The road the class has taken is well-documented. Fifth-year players like Terry, Gerald Holmes and Demetrius Cooper were around for the win in the Rose Bowl then saw time in the Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor and played key roles in reaching the College Football Playoffs.

Getting back to a bowl game was huge for them, and it has shown all week.

“Just finished my last practice ever in the green and white,” Holmes posted.

How they’ve set up the Michigan State program moving forward has been just as critical as this season’s success. There are 53 freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the team who never have experienced a bowl game until this week, and they’ll be counted on moving forward.

This week has been just as important as the experience they gained throughout the season.

“It’s been different, an initial bowl experience for our freshmen and last year’s freshmen, which makes up 53 players on our team. That’s been a positive,” Dantonio said. “I think our players are excited about everything. Everything is a new experience for these guys and you have half of the team leading them because they’ve been to the Rose Bowl or a Cotton Bowl or two.”

Getting win No. 10 is the immediate concern. The next step comes from there, and that includes getting a young roster to make progress and go from a second-place finish in the Big Ten East to pushing for the title and a spot in the conference championship game.

Thirteen true freshmen played this season and all likely will have key roles heading into a 2018 season that likely will come with high expectations.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke will be a junior and the offensive line will be a year better. On the other side of the ball, the core enters its prime as, once again, there will be few seniors, as only linebacker Andrew Dowell and safety Khari Willis figure to be certain starters.

Michigan State safety Khari Willis likely will be one of only a few senior starters on next season’s defense.

And there are still some questions. The biggest is probably the status of running back LJ Scott, who has said he will wait until after the Holiday Bowl to decide whether he’ll be back for his senior season. If he leaves for the NFL, the Spartans still will have Madre London for his senior season, while Connor Heyward saw limited action as a freshman.

There is plenty of youth pushing, though, with Weston Bridges, who redshirted, as well as incoming freshmen Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson.

So, while Michigan State will be a year older, it still won’t be senior heavy. Youth will continue to be served.

“There are some positives on both ends there,” Dantonio said. “We have had a great experience, and we’ve done what we needed to do leading up to this football game and now we have to close. To me, closing is playing your very best.”

The Spartans closed this chapter on Thursday night, but considering what’s coming back, the story seems far from written.