East Lansing — Michigan State begins spring practice on Tuesday, and coming off a bounce-back season in 2017, there will be plenty of optimism surrounding the football building.
That optimism exists not only because the Spartans had their biggest turnaround in program history by improving seven games to record their sixth 10-win season in the last eight, but they did so with a young roster that remains virtually intact heading into 2018.
Behind quarterback Brian Lewerke and young playmakers on both sides of the ball, Michigan State will almost certainly be competing for the Big Ten East title once again after finishing second last season.
There are some changes. The coaching staff has shuffled as Harlon Barnett and Mark Snyder left for Florida State and were replaced by Paul Haynes (defensive backs) and Chuck Bullough (defensive ends), while former MSU assistant Don Treadwell returned to the staff to cover a variety of areas.
Even so, things are much more stable than they were a year ago when Michigan State was reeling from a 3-9 mark in 2016 and battling off-field issues. Heading into another spring, here are some of the key storylines:
Things remain status quo for the most part on the offensive side of the ball, but it’s on defense where there are some significant changes. Barnett’s departure has given Mike Tressel total control of the defense after sharing coordinator duties with Barnett the last three seasons. He’ll continue to coach linebackers while adding play-calling duties to his to-do list in 2018. Taking over for Barnett in the secondary is Haynes, who was the head coach at Kent State the past five seasons and is a former MSU assistant. Bullough, who still holds the MSU mark for most tackles in a season — 175 in 1991 — assumes Snyder’s role.
That leaves Tressel and defensive tackles coach Ron Burton as the only returning defensive coaches. How it affects a defense that finished in the top 10 in the nation in total defense and rushing defense remains to be seen. But with Tressel playing a key role the last three seasons, the scheme shouldn’t change drastically.
There’s no question that Lewerke is the man in charge of the offense. As a sophomore, he started all 13 games while throwing for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also ran for 559 yards and five touchdowns as his 3,352 total yards was the second-most in program history. The only question at the quarterback spot is who backs up Lewerke?
Damion Terry graduated and Messiah deWeaver transferred. That leaves the Spartans thin in terms of depth. That makes this spring vital for freshman Rocky Lombardi, who redshirted last season, and also could mean more work for incoming freshman Theo Day, who has enrolled early.
PROGRESS UP FRONT
The Spartans were inexperienced along the offensive line to begin the season, with center Brian Allen the only senior. However, the unit progressed throughout the season and was playing well by the final few weeks. David Beedle was solid when healthy while rising junior Cole Chewins made strides at left tackle. Luke Campbell played well at right tackle as a redshirt freshman while Kevin Jarvis made big strides starting 10 games at right guard as a true freshman. His classmate, Jordan Reid, also saw his playing time increase at right tackle as the season progressed.
Replacing Allen will be the key, and it his brother, Matt, has the inside track. He played sparingly as a redshirt freshman, but this spring will be critical for him in locking down that spot.
Michigan State returns its top three receivers after junior Felton Davis, sophomore Darrell Stewart and freshman Cody White all had productive seasons. The big question is, how does the depth shake out? Rison would have seen an increased role, but decided to transfer, while Jackson had seen his playing time dwindle after showing flashes.
This spring could provide Cam Chambers a chance to take an even bigger role, after getting minimal playing time last season as a redshirt freshman, while Laress Nelson got some work as a true freshman. Spring will also be a chance for the staff to get a look at incoming freshmen Javez Alexander and Julian Major, who both enrolled early.
WHO SPELLS LJ?
The Spartans landed a top “recruit” when running back LJ Scott said he was returning for his senior season, but the transfer of London leaves MSU thin behind Scott. Connor Heyward had three carries as a true freshman and is the only player returning who has run the ball. Weston Bridges should get plenty of opportunity this spring after redshirting in 2017.
It will be a good chance for Heyward and Bridges to solidify their spot on the depth chart, as incoming freshmen Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson won’t be on campus until preseason camp begins in August.
NEW 'D' STARTERS UP FRONT
The Spartans return tons on the defensive side of the ball, but they’ll need to replace end Demetrius Cooper and outside linebacker Chris Frey. Jacub Panasiuk should get plenty of work this spring after a solid showing as a true freshman in 2017 and senior Dillon Alexander provides depth after starting four games last fall.
The linebacker spot could be a battle between Tyriq Thompson, who will be a junior, and Antjuan Simmons, who saw plenty of action as a true freshman. The intriguing player is Brandon Randle. He came to MSU as a linebacker and played some on the outside as a redshirt freshman in 2017. However, he saw plenty of time at defensive end as well, and it will be interesting to see how the Spartans utilize him moving forward.
There’s not much room on the depth chart in the back end as cornerbacks Justin Layne and Josiah Scott return along with safeties Khari Willis and David Dowell. There’s tons of depth at both spots with Josh Butler and Tyson Smith on the outside and Matt Morrissey and Grayson Miller at safety. It will be a big spring for Dominque Long and Tre Person, who each played as true freshmen, with Long turning into a special-teams standout.
Add in an outstanding recruiting class — both Kalon Gervin and Xavier Henderson have enrolled early — and the battle for playing time in the secondary could get fierce.