Michigan State could unearth future playmakers in bowl practices

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

As much as a bowl game is a reward for a season just completed, for those teams not taking part in the College Football Playoff the extra game and practices leading up to it can be a vital part in moving forward.

That’s the situation Michigan State finds itself in this season as it prepares to take on Oregon in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31 in Santa Clara, Calif. It’s the 11th time Michigan State has played in a bowl game in coach Mark Dantonio’s 12 seasons, but after ending the regular season with a disappointing 7-5 record and finishing off the pace in the Big Ten East, the Spartans have plenty to figure out before 2019. Much of that begins now.

Michigan State freshman running back Elijah Collins only had two carries in three games this season, but could be in line for a larger role next season.

“I don't think it's ever routine (reaching a bowl game)," Dantonio said. "You've got to work to get there, and it's hard to win football games, and the margin of error is very, very small, in many cases. I think you could see that this year, and really when you look back at the past.

“So I don't take anything for granted in that respect, but I think it's always an accomplishment and it always is an opportunity to send your football forward in a positive way, whether it was after the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl … I just think it sends your football team out one year and into the next year on a positive vibe. So, it's important that we have the opportunity to win and we'll work hard to accomplish that.”

After the win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Michigan State responded in 2013 with a Big Ten title and a victory in the Rose Bowl. To have a similar turnaround in 2019, the Spartans almost will certainly be looking for playmakers on both sides of the ball. Bowl practices are the perfect time to do that, and combined with the new redshirt rules that allow a player to see action in up to four games without losing a season of eligibility, there are plenty of fresh faces likely to get more work leading up to and during the game.

The first place to look is the freshman class. Three players — safety Xavier Henderson, running back La’Darius Jefferson and wide receiver Jalen Nailor — all have played more than four games and will continue to see significant action. But five more freshmen played in at least one game this season and six more were on the travel roster at various points, meaning they’re close to getting on the field, as well.

Running back Elijah Collins played in three games and got a couple of carries against Rutgers. He’ll likely continue to get work, especially with senior LJ Scott opting to head to the NFL instead of returning for a fifth season. He’s joined in the backfield by Jefferson, who ran for 255 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games. They’ll both compete with junior-to-be Connor Heyward.

Another freshman who could become an impact player on offense is tight end Trenton Gillison. He played in just two games, but has the size and athleticism to be a difference-maker at a position that has lacked consistent production. Defensive back Davion Williams also played two games on special teams, while cornerback Kalon Gervin and defensive tackle Jacob Slade each played once.

How Williams and Gervin are used in the bowl game is worth nothing, as junior Justin Layne announced he was headed to the NFL, forgoing his senior season.

Other freshmen to keep an eye on next week include a host of young defensive players. Linebackers Edward Warriner and Jeslord Boateng, along with defensive backs Michael Dowell and Chris Jackson, traveled at least once this season but have yet to play. Included in the group is defensive tackle Dashaun Mallory, as well as quarterback Theo Day.

Outside of the freshmen, which players could jump into bigger roles during the bowl game and headed into the spring?

Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons (34) has 29 tackles in 12 games this season. He'll likely earn a larger role in 2019.

On defense there aren’t a lot of places to look as the majority of the starters will be back. Antjuan Simmons, who will be a junior next season, likely steps in for Andrew Dowell at outside linebacker while Layne’s spot will be a battle of the youngsters.

On offense, several players got work this season because of the number of injuries. A few to keep an eye on up front include tackles A.J. Arcuri and Mustafa Khaleefah, as well as guard Matt Carrick, all redshirt freshmen who were used in spots this season.

Receiver depth will continue to be on display as sophomore Cam Chambers saw his work increase. With Felton Davis off to the NFL, there could be more opportunity, but the staff has shown it feels comfortable using Brandon Sowards, who will return for a sixth season. That could limit the chances for players like sophomore Laress Nelson and redshirt freshman C.J. Hayes.

The quarterback spot is worth watching, too. If junior Brian Lewerke is healthy, he’ll play. But redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi has started three games and there’s always a chance the staff gives Day a shot to see his first snaps.

Whether the lineup juggling leads to a rebound next season will play out down the road. For now, the Spartans hope it helps end 2018 on a high note.

“I think you want to feel good about where you left it as you finish your season, so we need to get ourselves ready to play and play our best football,” Dantonio said. “That's as much as anything; we want to leave our season playing our best football.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau