Basketball season is under way and the football team is in the top 20 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
It all makes for another lively edition of the Michigan State mailbag.
We hit plenty of topics this week, from the never-ending quarterback saga to freshman basketball playing time and what to expect of Nick Ward and Cassius Winston.
Here it is, another chance to get all the answers you’re looking for with the Spartans.
►Question. 1. Will Nailor get shot on returns? 2. What young players you think get more playing time during last 4 games? — @LPTnBrisk
►Answer. The punt return has always been a bit of a give and take between playing it safe and giving a playmaker a shot. Mark Dantonio has often said the punt is the most important play of the game and he puts an emphasis on securing the possession. That is the No. 1 priority, so that is often why Brandon Sowards is back there. It’s been the rare occasion Michigan State has had someone like Keshawn Martin, who can provide both. Cody White was possibly that player, but his broken hand took him out of the mix in the punt return. Shakur Brown got a shot, but he fumbled right away, which is a good way to never get another crack.
As for Jalen Nailor? We’ll see. At this point in the season, I don’t see there being much of a change. There was at least one punt last week where Darrell Stewart Jr. was back as a shorter, second return man. But Dantonio is comfortable in the belief Brandon Sowards won’t make a mistake, so that’s where it’s at. Maybe Nailor gets a crack next year.
►Q. Matt, are you surprised at the Bowl Committee ranking for MSU? Assuming a win over Ohio State and the rest of the year, can MSU get into a New Year's Six bowl? (Forgetting about the Rose Bowl stuff for a moment.) — @DavidJa88692244
►A. Why forget the Rose Bowl? That’s the New Year’s Six game MSU has the best shot at. Quick back to the ranking. I think there was a bit of correction by the committee from last week. That last half in the first week was bizarre. This week’s rankings seem more in line with what we’re seeing. That said, Michigan State really MUST win Saturday to have a shot at a big bowl, and even then, it’s not a guarantee. The Rose Bowl could still take Ohio State. It’s the bowl’s choice at that point. But hey, as long as I’m somewhere warm, right?
►Q. How short will Lewerke’s leash be on Saturday? We’ll start hearing “Rocky” chants early if he still can’t throw. — @shawnmatthews03
►A. About as short as last week, though that didn’t seem very short. I just don’t see the benefit in playing an injured quarterback, though Dantonio said this week that Lewerke isn’t “hurt.” So take that for what it’s worth. Obviously, he doesn’t think it’s affecting Lewerke’s physical ability. And yes, you’ll hear the “Rocky” chant on the first incomplete pass. It probably won’t be fair, but you’ll hear it, of that I’m certain.
►Q. Are the best days of football and basketball behind MSU for a few years? Be honest. They are and you know it. — @EnjoyTheSearch
►A. This is quite the pessimistic view of things and it seems to fall in line with what the fanbase of at least one rival hopes will be the case. The reality is I don’t buy that at all. When it comes to football, you can’t look past the amount of injuries the team has had this season and just brush it aside. MSU has a chance to win 10 games again. Is that what the Spartans hoped for? No, but it’s hardly going back to pre-Dantonio days. Even a conservative view says they have a realistic shot at nine wins with the bulk of the roster back next year.
As for basketball, I feel like this happens often with some fans. Whether it’s losing to a No. 1 team — by five, mind you — or not getting a recruiting class like Duke or Kentucky, there is always fretting over the Spartans. Look, this team is not as talented as the last few, but they’re still good enough to win the Big Ten and the last Final Four team in 2015 had shortcomings, as well.
And take a look at next year’s class (which we’ll get into in a minute) and tell me MSU basketball’s best years are behind it. I don’t think so.
►Q. Is Tom Izzo coaching for his job? — @pblackburn46
►A. Stop. The simple answer is, no. I don’t know what else to say to this one. Is Calipari coaching for his job? Kentucky got smoked Tuesday night by Duke and hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2015, either.
►Q. Thoughts on Gabe Brown's minutes. Feels like his talent can push our ceiling this year much higher. — @MaxRothley
►A. Well, there weren’t any minutes, so this could be a short answer. I was a tiny bit surprised that every other freshman saw time against Kansas and not Brown. We’ll see. I’d expect his time to gradually increase as the season goes. I wouldn’t let the opener dampen any thoughts about Brown. He’s still not as strong as he needs to be, like Marcus Bingham Jr., but he’ll work his way in.
►Q. Ward and Winston, to me, seemed very similar to last year in their play. Winston had some careless turnovers and Ward struggled defensively and shooting. Only one game in, but have you seen differences in practices? — @WaiteMarc
►A. I see what you’re saying, and to an extent, it makes sense. But I’m not with you on Nick Ward struggling defensively. He was pretty solid on Azubuike, who is massive. And the ball-screen defense was solid. That took a lot out of Ward, but it was just as tough to get him the ball in the post on the other end. The positive spin is none of it bothered Ward. In the past, he’d be dejected.
On Tuesday night, he was upbeat and understood it was going to be a challenge. I actually expect him to really start to come alive over the next few weeks. As for Cassius Winston, he has to do whatever it takes to cut down on the turnovers. He’s playing a ton of minutes, and that won’t change, so he has to shore that up.