Linebackers a 'good situation' for Dantonio, Michigan State
East Lansing — The old saying in football goes, if you have more than one quarterback you don’t have a quarterback. Or, at least, it goes something like that.
Of course, the idea is that if one doesn’t stand out, that means none of the quarterbacks will excel. That same theory doesn’t apply to the linebacker position, and at Michigan State, the feeling is the Spartans have plenty of options to anchor a defense that finished second in the nation in 2017 in rush defense, allowing just more than 95 yards a game.
“There's some competition at linebacker,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We'll travel with 10 linebackers (to away games). I really think that nine of them pretty much can play in and out. That's a good situation.”
Michigan State didn’t have to replace much on defense, including middle linebacker where junior Joe Bachie is coming off an MVP season and senior Andrew Dowell enters his third year as the starter on the weak side.
But the strong-side linebacker spot has been up for grabs with the graduation of Chris Frey, and has been hotly contested throughout preseason camp. On Tuesday, the depth chart was revealed, and junior Tyriq Thompson was listed as the co-starter with sophomore Brandon Randle.
“I think Tyriq has had a good camp. I think Brandon Randle is much improved,” Dantonio said. “Who plays, when they play, it's up to them how they perform in that football game. They've both had points in the summer where you say, ‘That is special.’ So I'm excited to watch them because they're both young players, and this is their first opportunity in that area.”
The Spartans also can turn to fifth-year senior Byron Bullough, who is also backing up Bachie in the middle, as well as sixth-year senior Jon Reschke.
Reschke is the wild card in the rotation. He started 14 games in 2015 then missed most of the 2016 season with an ankle injury. He left the program in early 2017 after using a racial slur in reference to a former teammate, but was welcomed back this season by the players.
He won’t start right away, but he’ll have a role.
“We're going to play him as we play all of our players really,” Dantonio said. “He's been out of football for two years. I think he'll show up on some special teams, different areas. He's done what he's needed to do. Our football team feels as they do about him.
“I sort of continue to watch that situation. It sort of is what it is. The other two guys deserve an opportunity to play … I'm sure he'll see the field.”
More: Dantonio releases MSU depth chart: Josh Butler to start for injured Josiah Scott
Michigan State set a program record last season by playing 13 true freshmen. It’s a number that likely won’t be matched this season, even with the new rule allowing players to see action in up to four games without losing their redshirt.
Still, when the depth chart was released Tuesday there were nine true freshmen listed, including five on offense, three on defense and one on special teams. How many actually play remains to be seen.
“With the new rule, if a guy plays, you have to ask yourself is he going to play continually or is he playing because of an injury to another player for a little bit?” Dantonio said. “We're not going to play our guys just to play them. There's going to be a process there. We have some guys we may want to hold till the end of the season where they possibly know the game a little bit better at this level.”
The most likely to see action right away is safety Xavier Henderson, an early enrollee listed as David Dowell’s backup at free safety. On offense, both La’Darius Jefferson and Elijah Collins could get a shot at running back.
“I really believe we probably have about six or seven freshmen that could play this year,” Dantonio said. “Now whether they play in three days, eight hours from now remains to be seen because I think we want to make sure we have them till the end of the year, maybe still want to try to maintain their redshirt throughout. We will take our time and see how that works.”
The No. 1 goal is to win, which is why the Spartans have no plans to give starting quarterback Brian Lewerke a break. However, his backups — redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi and freshman Theo Day — have yet to take a college snap, meaning there could be a push to get them some snaps early in the season.
“Obviously if there's an opportunity, we're going to get in our other guys,” Dantonio said. “Rocky Lombardi is prepared to play, Theo is on his way. See what we can do. But bottom line is win the football game.”
… Dantonio said it’s still up in the air who will handle kickoffs, as redshirt freshmen Tyler Hunt and Cole Hahn are both in the mix.
… Dantonio also said junior Ryan Armour is handling the long snapping, moving ahead of junior Collin Caflisch, who was the snapper last season.