Michigan State mailbag: Offense needs a jolt to help supreme defense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

We took a break for the holidays — I mean, come on, I had trees to decorate and paychecks to spend on needy teenagers. But we’re back, now, with another edition of the Michigan State mailbag.

Plenty has happened since we last chatted. Or, actually, not much has happened considering the football team managed six points in the Redbox Bowl and lost to Oregon in a game we watched all season. And no, there have been no staff changes, but that still was at the top of the list of topics this week.

Changes made to unlock a Michigan State offense that includes Connor Heyward (11) could give the Spartans a chance to enjoy a big turnaround in 2019.

We tackled that as best we could, and even got a basketball question. It seems appropriate considering the Spartans are the sixth-ranked team in the country and are playing about as well as any MSU team since 2016.

So here it is, the first MSU mailbag of the new year. Enjoy.

Question. Being stacked at DB and with the returns of Bachie, Williams, and now Willekes, doesn't that put more pressure on MD to fix the offense and possibly even go outside for more creativity? If so, any candidates to keep an eye on? — @CKiev

Answer. I can’t imagine there would be any less pressure to make changes to the offense even if those players had opted to head to the NFL, considering how anemic the offense was last season and the fact it is far from a one-time deal — this offensive tailspin has slowly been taking place ever since the playoff season of 2015. But, I get your point: With a defense that once again should be among the best in the nation, one that’s good enough to play for a championship, it makes having even a competent offense critical. The best example is 2013 when Michigan State might have been the best team in the nation by the end of the season thanks, in large part, to the defense. The fact the Spartans were just OK on offense was good enough.

So, yeah, there’s pressure on Mark Dantonio to fix the offense. What those changes might be? We’ll try and tackle that over the next couple of questions.

Q. Don't care if you think he should, do you think Coach will make changes to the 10-man staff or possibly bring in a consultant, like he did with White? — @NorthShoreRalph

A. Here’s the real crux of the issue: If changes are made, what will they be? I think we can safely assume there will be no adjusting the defensive staff, for the most part. I say for the most part because I’m still not convinced Dantonio appeases the critics and forces out any members of the offensive staff, namely co-coordinator Dave Warner. That means change could be anything from bringing in a consultant to give the offense a fresh approach or going back to a former coordinator who is already on staff. That, of course, would be Don Treadwell, who was hired as the 10th assistant last year and works with defensive backs while also focuses on mentoring freshmen. He was the Spartans’ offensive coordinator from 2007-10 before taking the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio).

In Treadwell’s four seasons running the Spartans’ offense, MSU finished second, sixth, second and fifth in scoring in the Big Ten and fourth, eighth, third and sixth in total offense. Not great, but solid, and much better than what has taken place the last three seasons.

If Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio elects to make changes to his offensive staff for next season, assistant Don Treadwell could be in line for a larger role.

Q. Who do you have on your list of OC options for MSU next season? — @MitchellBorin

A. OK, let’s say Dantonio does go against his nature and makes major overhauls on the offensive staff. I’m not sure anyone would be safe, though it seems Warner and offensive line coach Mark Staten would be the most vulnerable. But let’s be honest, everyone would be focused on the coordinator. Where could MSU turn? We’ve hit a few of these names, but now is the time as coaches are finalizing staffs now with recruiting about to get rolling again. The top name is Matt Canada, who was the interim head coach at Maryland in 2018 and was Pat Narduzzi’s OC at Pitt for a season. However, Canada is high on plenty of lists and reportedly met with Tennessee this week. The other big name is former Houston coach Major Applewhite, but he’s rumored to be taking the OC gig at Miami (Fla.) After that, the list would likely include some young position coaches looking to get a break

Q. If Michigan State's offense bounces back and performs at the 2017 level (that's not exactly asking for the moon), wouldn't the 2019 Spartans be good enough to be a 10-2 sort of club? The defense is THAT good. Right? — @DavidJa88692244

A. That’s essentially what I pointed out earlier in the mailbag. With a defense this good, Michigan State only needs its offense to be average. If that happens, 10-2 might be the benchmark and winning the Big Ten East and the conference championship game wouldn’t sound outrageous. You’re right, the defense is THAT good. It’s easy to overlook when a team goes 7-6, but this reminds me a lot of 2012. That defense turned into the 2013 unit that might be Dantonio’s best and a slight uptick in offense helped MSU go 13-1, beating Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. That could be there again if — IF — the offense shows a pulse.

Don't expect quarterback Jalen Hurts, who could transfer from Alabama, to head to East Lansing.

Q. Chances MSU throws their name in the Jalen Hurts sweepstakes? — @MLev1984

A. This was a hot topic on Wednesday as it became apparent the Alabama quarterback was seeking a transfer for his final season. Look, it’s worth a call to see if he’s interested in coming to Michigan State. He’d be a clear upgrade and would make everyone around him better. The two big questions are: Would MSU adjust the offense to take advantage of Hurts’ strengths, and would Hurts be at all interested? I’m not seeing it, mostly because all signs point to Hurts sticking in the south, maybe back home to Texas (perhaps TCU) or following former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley to Maryland. (How much would that spice up the Big Ten East?)

Q. What I really want to know is why MSU struggles with recruiting (never top 20 in USA) despite being ranked in the top 20 at the end of the season 10 out of the last 11 years or so. — @randycharb

A. This is a question that we could take the entire space to dive into, and maybe we will in the off-season. There are so many levels of this, but the biggest being that Michigan State is smack in the middle of the same region as Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame. Yeah, those schools recruit nationally, but they don’t abandon the Midwest, either. A lot more goes into this, and you also can’t ignore the way Michigan State recruits to fit its system and develops players. I guess I answer by asking, does a top-rated class always translate to success? Not always. Just look at 2016. Yeah, you need players to compete. I’m just not sure MSU will ever be on the same level as the top 15 programs when it comes to recruiting. From there, you rely on development, where Dantonio and his staff have done quite well.

Q. Who leaves after the season? Ward and Langford?? Hopefully not Winston. — @whitetailmount

A. Hey, we even got a basketball question. I’d be surprised if Nick Ward is back next season. He really wanted to go last offseason, but it was clear he wasn’t going to get drafted. What he has done is taken all of the feedback and dedicated himself to improving in every aspect, from conditioning, to working on a jump shot to his attitude. He’s a different person this year and I think that will translate into a second-round grade, which will be enough for Ward to leave with one season of eligibility left. That should be it, though. Expect both Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford to be back as seniors.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau