MSU mailbag: Time to panic about basketball recruiting?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State’s offensive problems through the first two games, especially in the red zone, have the fan base worried headed into the Big Ten opener Saturday at Indiana.

Much of that concern focuses on the offensive line and, in particular, the center position. Of course, the play calling draws the ire of some, as well, while there’s also legitimate concern over the absence of punter Jake Hartbarger.

Brian Lewerke takes a snap from Tyler Higby (70)  in the opener against Utah State. Higby has struggled at center this season.

We cover those issues as well as take a quick dip into basketball recruiting in this week’s mailbag.

Question. Why is Matt Allen listed behind Tyler Higby on this week’s depth chart despite Allen outplaying Higby last week and it being clear that Higby is being dominated at the center box, resulting in plays collapsing? — @SpartyH

Answer. This is probably the most popular topic of discussion this week, and to be honest, I’ll be surprised if Allen is not starting and getting the bulk of the work Saturday night. I don’t think that means they’ve given up on Higby and he can play all five spots on the line, but it seems clear to most that his transition to center has not gone well. Mark Dantonio seemed to say as much last week during the bye, but backed off that stance a bit this week saying only that it would be a game-time decision.

With the struggles the offensive line has had through the first two games, there’s no shortage of different combinations the Spartans could use up front, but at this point, it seems Allen at center is the best option.

Q. Why does Dave Warner have a job? Has anyone in the media ever pressed Mark on why he keeps him around? — @rickcz1

Dave Warner, Michigan State's co-offensive coordinator, has been on staff since 2006.

A. Clearly because they’re friends. OK, I’m obviously kidding about that, but there’s plenty of folks out there that believe that to be the case. Dantonio likes to tell the story where he talked to a fan who said, ‘Just run that play where you score a touchdown.’ His point is that it’s far more complicated than that. Football might be the ultimate team game and if one aspect of any play breaks down, the whole thing usually falls apart. Who often gets the blame? The guy calling the plays, obviously.

Do I think every play Warner calls is the right one? Nope. But I’ll remind everyone he is the same guy who called the offense in 2014 that set program records in every major offensive category. And you can’t say that was only because he had good players. If you do, then you can’t absolve the players now and put it all on Warner.

Q. Will Connor Heyward be the starter by the end of the season even with a healthy LJ Scott? — @TheRealUDJG

Michigan State running back LJ Scott is averaging 3.4 yards per carry through two games this season.

A. Unless Scott is injured, that would be a big surprise. I saw some back and forth on Twitter that suggested it was because Dantonio is too loyal to upperclassmen. That might be one of the oddest stances I’ve seen in some time, especially for a guy who played 13 true freshmen last season. The examples are far too numerous to list here of how Dantonio plays who he believes is the best player. Just look at this year’s team. Will Josiah Scott start over Josh Butler when he gets back? Yup. Does fifth-year senior Byron Bullough play ahead of junior Joe Bachie? Nope. Has he ever? Again, no.

As for Scott, I do think he is running tentatively, but I know the coaching staff still believes he can have a huge year. And, again, it’s not all on him. There hasn’t been a ton of room to run for any of the backs yet.

Q. Have we thought about incorporating a Jet Sweep into our red zone offense? — @DominicPecora

A. Without breaking down the plays that have been run in the red zone, I’d have to guess we’ve seen it at least once or twice. Maybe not, but often in the red zone running plays that take some time to develop don’t always work that well. That said, I’m not sure Michigan State should rule anything out. But I’ll go back to the same theme I’ve used when people criticize the play calls — look at the execution on some the red-zone plays. It’s been far from efficient.

More: Mark Dantonio hopes 'repetition' works for MSU

More: Michigan State sees Big Ten opener as chance for relaunch

Q. Indiana has a dangerous punt returner. MSU is down a punter. Is this an area that could produce a negative game changing play for MSU? How do you think MSU will try to mitigate this threat? —@Adam_Burke_

A. It absolutely could produce a game-changing play, which would have been the same if Jake Hartbarger was healthy. Granted, it might increase the chances with backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi taking over for the injured Hartbarger. It’s unfair to think Lombardi would be able to consistently produce the same hangtime as Hartbarger, so trying to keep the ball away from Indiana’s J-Shun Harris will be critical. The best bet the Spartans have for doing this is Lombardi implementing more rugby-style kicking, something that allows more time for the coverage unit to get downfield and is a kick the punter has an easier time controlling.

Lombardi says he’s comfortable kicking this way while the increased threat of the Spartans running a fake could keep the Hoosiers from effectively blocking the return.

Q. When should we start to notice and be concerned that Izzo doesn’t have a single recruit for next season? Is it normal this late into the recruiting “season”? — @sacohoon

A. Good to mix in some hoops as the first practice will be coming up in a few weeks. I’ve always tried to determine which sport is more nervous about recruiting — football or basketball. I’m thinking now it’s basketball simply because there aren’t as many guys and everyone expects MSU to just go grab five-stars (even though that’s never been the reality). I went back and looked at the last few classes and getting commitments in the fall is pretty standard. Last year stood out as the exception as Aaron Henry was the fifth and final commit in September, but in previous years there were plenty of commits that hadn’t decided yet. In 2017, both Xavier Tillman and Jaren Jackson committed in September, and the trend nationally seems to be players pushing their decisions later and later.

So yeah, a couple of players went off the board this week, but there’s a lot of guys MSU is still in on and many of them have MSU high on their list. Tom Izzo sure won’t get them all and I’m even more sure there will be plenty of hand-wringing over who he does and doesn’t get, but it’s far from time to panic.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau