Expect defense to again be Michigan State's strong suit in 2019
East Lansing — When it comes to moving on from the 2018 football season, there probably aren’t many around the Michigan State program that will resist the urge to quickly turn the attention to 2019.
It’s easy to see why for the Spartans, who entered last season ranked in the top 15 in the nation with designs on competing for the Big Ten East title and getting back to the conference championship game.
However, a rash of injuries on offense that helped lead to poor execution, mixed in with questionable game plans and play-calling, led to Michigan State having arguably the most ineffective offense in coach Mark Dantonio’s 12 seasons. Combined with the fact the Spartans had one of the top defenses in the nation — No. 1 against the run — and it created a level of frustration that hasn’t surrounded the program since prior to Dantonio’s arrival.
The seven wins in 2012 came as Michigan State was on its ascent toward becoming a player in the Big Ten and on the national scene while the 3-9 of 2016 was quickly erased by 10 victories in 2017. The step back of 2018, however, came with nearly the entire roster returning and high expectations.
None of those expectations were met, which has many calling for Dantonio to make significant changes, namely on the offensive staff.
Whether he pulls the trigger on any moves, one thing is clear, the Spartans will, once again, have tons of returning talent. Barring any unforeseen injuries and while still waiting on NFL decisions from the likes of linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive end Kenny Willekes, Michigan State will have few holes to fill.
Defense remains stacked
Might as well start out with the good news, and that is on the defensive side of the ball.
It starts up front, and for the top rushing defense in the nation, the best news for the Spartans came when tackle Raequan Williams announced he would be back for his senior season.
“That's kind of a Happy New Year's deal,” Dantonio said. “When Raequan made that decision, it's the first of hopefully a number of guys to make that decision, but that's up to them.
Along with fellow junior Mike Panasiuk, Williams helped clog the line and disrupt opposing offenses. They were backed up by sophomore Naquan Jones, though fifth-year senior Gerald Owens will have to be replaced in the rotation. Keep an eye on Dashaun Mallory, who redshirted this season, to get a shot there, as well as redshirt freshman DeAri Todd.
On the edge, the decision from Willekes will be big. How much the broken leg he suffered in the Redbox Bowl affects his decision is unknown, but assuming he’s back, expect Willekes and sophomore Jacub Panasiuk to remain the starters with redshirt freshman Jack Camper seeing his role increase, as well as sophomore Drew Beesley. The development of freshmen Zach Slade and Parks Gissinger also will be something to keep an eye on while MSU recruited three defensive ends.
The linebacker corps will have to replace Andrew Dowell on the outside, a spot sophomore Antjuan Simmons should slide into, while junior Tyriq Thompson and sophomore Brandon Bouyer-Randle will man the other side if Bachie is back.
The starters are fine, it’s the depth that will see a lot of new faces with the departure of Byron Bullough, Jon Reschke and Grayson Miller.
Those faces include freshmen Edward Warinner and Jeslord Boateng on the outside, and potentially Chase Kline on the inside after he missed most of his first season with an injury. Luke Fulton and Marcel Lewis are incoming freshmen the Spartans are high on, as well.
The secondary at Michigan State always seems to reload, and the Spartans will be doing that again at both cornerback and safety.
The early departure of cornerback Justin Layne opens things up opposite sophomore Josiah Scott, but fourth-year junior Josh Butler played well in the bowl game and will have the inside track to start there while battling redshirt freshman Shakur Brown and sophomore Tre Person. There are plenty of young players pushing, as well, including freshmen Kalon Gervin, Davion Williams and Chris Jackson while sophomore special-teams standout Dominique Long has played both corner and safety. Also, expect incoming freshman Julian Barnett to have a role in his first season.
At safety, Khari Willis graduates while David Dowell enters his final season. Freshman Xavier Henderson should slide into Willis’ spot and freshman Michael Dowell should get an opportunity.
Questions on offense
It’s the offensive side of the ball where things are much more unsettled.
It makes sense to start at quarterback, where Brian Lewerke struggled mightily as a junior. Much of that can be attributed to injury — his and those around him. If healthy, it’s likely his job to lose considering the faith Dantonio has put in Lewerke at times this season. Where that leaves redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi and freshman Theo Day remains to be seen. Lombardi was up and down in his time, while Day didn’t take a snap. Also, don’t count out incoming freshman Payton Thorne, though he’ll be behind coming in during the summer.
Running back is also full of potential contributors as LJ Scott is off to the NFL. Expect sophomore Connor Heyward to continue to have a big role, though freshmen La’Darius Jefferson and Elijah Collins expect to keep pushing for carries, as well as redshirt freshman Weston Bridges. Michigan State is also bringing in two true freshmen, and Dantonio always has been willing to play a first-year back.
Replacing Felton Davis at wide receiver is easier said than done, but when healthy, the Spartans have a lot of options, including sophomore Cody White and junior Darrell Stewart, along with freshman Jalen Nailor, a potential game-breaker. Who joins them is the question. Sophomore Cam Chambers always seems on the verge of breaking out, while sophomore Laress Nelson and redshirt freshman C.J. Hayes have gotten fewer opportunities. The Spartans are bringing in four receivers in next year’s class while players like freshman Javez Alexander are still pushing for a shot.
Matt Sokol is gone at tight end, but the Spartans feel good about sophomore Matt Dotson and freshman Trenton Gillison. If sophomore Noah Davis can make it back after missing the entire season with an injury, it could be a position of strength.
Of course, an offense’s success starts up front and Michigan State has questions, primarily because injuries ravaged this group. Only sophomore Jordan Reid and junior Tyler Higby didn’t miss games, with Reid at right tackle and Higby starting at center, left tackle and left guard. Everyone else was in and out, including junior left tackle Cole Chewins, sophomore right guard Kevin Jarvis, sophomore center Matt Allen and sophomore guard/tackle Luke Campbell. Redshirt freshman Blake Bueter was adequate at center, while redshirt freshmen Matt Carrick and A.J. Arcuri will push for bigger roles.
Other names to watch are freshmen Jacob Isaia and James Ohonba, who was out all season with an injury. Also, expect incoming five-star Devontae Dobbs to have a role early.
As for specialists, not much will change as the Spartans expect punter Jake Hartbarger to return for a sixth season after a broken leg forced him to miss most of last season while sophomore kicker Matt Coghlin had another productive season.
“(The bowl game) sort of signifies the end of 2018 and 2019 begins the next day,” Dantonio said. “When we walk into the football building and our offices when we get back, the 2019 schedules will be up and in our meeting rooms, in our offices, in our hallways, and we start fresh.”