East Lansing – The defense being ahead of the offense early in preseason camp is nothing new.
At least, that’s been a familiar pattern at Michigan State under coach Mark Dantonio. Even in some of their most prolific seasons, including 2014 when the Spartans set program records in nearly every major offensive category, the defense was on its game early in camp.
So, it should have been no surprise this week to see the defense wearing green as Michigan State went through its second full week of preseason camp. Green goes to the winner of scrimmages, and the defense got the best of the offense in the first one last Friday.
“We don’t hold anything back,” junior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “A lot of guys got reps and they all played well. We played well as a team and as a defense.”
The key for this season’s offense is bouncing back in the second scrimmage, something that has also become fairly routine. That unit was set to get its chance Friday evening in the second of three scrimmages scheduled for camp.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke has been looking forward to it all week.
“It was a little frustrating for me,” Lewerke said. “We still need to start clicking on offense, but that’s why we practice and why we’re out here. There are things we can fix and hopefully we can do better at the next one.
“We couldn’t find a rhythm – pass the ball, run the ball. It’s typical with the offense, though, at a first scrimmage. We have sky-high expectations on offense and we want to live up to those.”
Expectations are high for the entire team, but getting the offense to improve on its overall performance from last season is imperative.
While Lewerke had a breakout season in his first as a starter by throwing 25 touchdown passes and gaining 3,352 total yard – the second-most in program history – the offense struggled to put points on the board. The Spartans ranked 91st in the nation in total offense (383.1 yards per game) and checked in at 96th in points per game (24.5).
While Lewerke was frustrated with how the offense played last week, he believes the corrections are simple and that the offense is on the right track.
“It honestly wasn't as bad as I thought in the moment,” Lewerke said. “When I look back on it, it's very small mistakes that we can fix. It's nothing like dramatic and it's nothing that we can't go into the next scrimmage and be able to fix pretty easily.”
It will hardly draw a ton of headlines, but Michigan State is taking time in preseason camp to figure out who will handle kickoffs this season after the graduation of Brett Scanlon.
Redshirt freshmen Cole Hahn and Tyler Hunt are the top contenders while junior Matt Coghlin, who handles field goals and extra points, is also being considered.
“Both of those guys continue to work,” Dantonio said. “Cole Hahn I think has improved. Tyler Hunt’s a guy who walked on here, a very good athlete. Coghlin can do it, with the new rules as they are he can reach that area too. That remains to be seen though, you have to kick under pressure, so we try to put the pressure on them to see where they’re at.”
The new rule Dantonio referenced is the one that allows teams receiving the kickoff to call a fair catch inside the 25-yard line that would result in a touchback.
“That will be an interesting thing to watch throughout the season, how other people do it and what we do, as well,” Dantonio said. “Our intent is, if it’s hung up there you’re looking at probably fair catching it around the goal line, and that type of thing. It sort of remains to be seen to me, if you’re kicking it to the 5, what do you do? We’re prepared to return it.”
Graham 'has a presence'
Michigan State has its share of new faces on the coaching staff this season with Don Treadwell, Chuck Bullough and Paul Haynes all taking on new roles. One that is more under the radar is that of Shayne Graham.
The former NFL kicker is now a special teams analyst. He won’t be doing any on-field coaching, but his 15 years of experience at the highest level is something Dantonio feels is invaluable.
“I think he has a presence here,” Dantonio said. “He’s got so much NFL experience and a special teams background that he gives them a sounding board. He can’t coach them on the field, he’s more of a consultant in terms of what he’s talking to them about. He’s like a psychological coach as well for them.”