Michigan State beefs up offensive line with 'power players' in recruiting class
East Lansing — Trying to pinpoint one reason why Michigan State struggled offensively in 2018 isn’t as simple as it might seem.
Many want to put the blame all on co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner and his play-calling while others fall back on the fact the Spartans suffered an inordinate amount of injuries on offense this season, with just one player starting all 12 games at the same position.
But any fair analysis of Michigan State’s offense would have to include the fact the offensive line did not play well. Even with the number of injuries up front, the Spartans didn’t get it done, leading to the fact the Spartans finished 13th in the Big Ten in both total offense and rushing offense.
On Wednesday, the Spartans believe they took a significant step in remedying some of the problems along the offensive line, signing five offensive linemen as part of the 2019 recruiting class, highlighted by five-star Devontae Dobbs of Belleville.
“I do believe from an offensive line perspective, this may be the best class we've ever signed in my 12 years here,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I see the quality of the players up there. If you want to include J.D. Duplain in that, who certainly can play over there, no question, it's the best offensive line class we've signed.”
Duplain is a 6-foot-3, 303-pound three-star from Strongsville, Ohio, who is ranked the No. 4 guard prospect in the state by Rivals.com. He turned down a late offer from Ohio State to stick with Michigan State, and Dantonio intends to have him start out on defense first with the option flip back to offense.
“We're going to fill the need here, taking a fifth guy at offensive line,” Dantonio said. “At the end of the day you're going to take your best players. Wherever he can get on the field fastest, that's where he'll play. We're going to allow him to see that on the defensive side initially probably because of things like his 40 time and because of his bench presses.”
It was that sort of strength that appealed to all the players Michigan State recruited along both the offensive and defensive lines.
In addition to the four offensive linemen and Duplain, the Spartans added a pair of defensive ends — Adam Berghorst of Zeeland East and Michael Fletcher of Flint Carman-Ainsworth — as well as Farmington Harrison’s Maverick Hansen, a late flip from Central Michigan who has played on both sides of the ball but Dantonio sees as a defensive tackle.
“We believe really the game of football starts up front,” Dantonio said. “I thought we signed a great, very impressive group of what I call power football players, guys that can play on the offensive and defensive lines in the trenches.”
That approach was clear on offense, beginning with Dobbs.
At 6-3 and 295 pounds, the Belleville standout is Michigan State’s first five-star since Malik McDowell in 2014. He turned down nearly every major program in the country to stick with his early commitment to the Spartans and is rated the No. 9 player in the nation by ESPN.
He played both guard and tackle at Belleville and could do the same at Michigan State. Either way, Dantonio expects Dobbs to make an immediate impact.
“I'd say tackle based on his feet, based on his feet that I saw in camp way back,” Dantonio said of where Dobbs might fit in. “He's got power and he can run, he can move. Really let Coach (Mark) Staten make those decisions as we go. I think he can play any of those positions up there, which is a big positive.”
Joining Dobbs up front as offensive line signings are Spencer Brown of Walled Lake Western, Damon Kaylor of Huntington (Ind.) North and Nick Samac of Mentor (Ohio).
Brown is rated a four-star by Rivals, and at 6-6 and 305 pounds projects as a tackle, while Kaylor (6-5, 302) could play inside or out while Samac (6-4, 285) would likely play inside.
“They're big, they're athletic. They come from very good programs,” Dantonio said of the recruits up front. “They've been very successful. They've been extremely highly recruited players. I also probably think (we recruited) the best two defensive ends — just big, long, tall defensive ends that we've recruited. They can get up and go.”
While getting better up front was the focus on Wednesday it wasn’t the only priority for the Spartans. They wanted difference-makers, and four-star cornerback Julian Barnett of Belleville fits the bill.
The No. 10 cornerback in the nation according to 247Sports, the Under Armour All-American also can play on offense, as he did in high school.
“You watch the highlight film, there's no question he can play receiver for us,” Dantonio said. “Just all over the place. Led them to the Division I semifinals. … He hits with shock. Has the potential to be a contributor. I believe that's going to happen.”
The Spartans signed five offensive skill players overall, all who have the chance to be play makers. Quarterback Payton Thorne of Naperville, Ill., was a late flip from Western Michigan, while wide receivers Tre Mosley of West Bloomfield and Jase Bowen of Toledo (Ohio) Central Catholic could make an early impact.
Michigan State also landed two running backs: speedy Anthony Williams of Bolingbrook, Ill., and the bruising Brandon Wright of Euclid, Ohio.
The Spartans also added a pair of linebackers — Luke Fulton of Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney and Marcel Lewis of Clinton Township Chippewa Valley — while punter Jack Bouwmeester of Australia also signed on Wednesday.
“Very excited about our class,” Dantonio said. “A lot of outstanding players this year, highly ranked players as always. Outstanding students in this class. Good balance of big skill and skill players, I feel. As I said before, power players, we have some outstanding power players as well.”