MSU mailbag: Plenty of concerns on offense; defense, not so much
It’s been a while since we had a Michigan State mailbag, so after a long NCAA Tournament run for the basketball team that ended in a trip to the Final Four, as well as the culmination of spring football practice, no better time than the present to dive into what’s happening with each program.
There was plenty of interest this week in the football team after fans got a glimpse of the roster during the annual Green and White game. Most of the attention was paid to the offense but there’s some questions, too, about depth on defense.
As for hoops, we tackle what type of player Rocket Watts might become for the Spartans and where Nick Ward might end up by next season.
►Q. What’re the actual chances the offense is any different this year? — @MSUFrankly
►A. The chances are pretty close to 100 percent. Let’s call it 99.9 percent, that way I’m safe and sometime in late September I can say, ‘Hey, I didn’t guarantee it.’ But honestly, nothing points toward things being business as usual for the Michigan State offense, and it has little to do with what we all saw in the spring game on Saturday. As everyone said — coaches, players on both sides of the ball — the Spartans showed almost nothing of what they worked on for the entire springs. You can make an argument that worrying about what opponents see five months before the season begins is a tad paranoid, and you might not be wrong.
The fact it, Brad Salem will do things differently in his first season as the Spartans’ offensive coordinator. I’m not sure that means opening things up and throwing every down, especially when he said last week that running the ball effectively is vital to any offense. However, quarterback Brian Lewerke described Salem as “new age” and talked about more run-pass options (RPO) than we’re used to seeing. So, exactly what the offense will be remains to be seen, but you can count on it at least being somewhat different than what the Spartans typically have run.
►Q. The offensive line is the x-factor for me. If they don’t pass or run block the offense won’t go. Is there a feel that they will be much improved? — @blars81
►A. I’m with you 100 percent in terms of how important the offensive line is to the offense’s success. A lot of attention was paid to the injuries last season at the skill positions, but the Spartans were hurting up front nearly the entire season. What does that mean for 2019? That’s tougher to predict. You’d have to think guys that are entering their junior and senior seasons will be ready for their best seasons, but consistency has hardly been this group’s strongest trait. Junior right tackle Jordan Reid and senior left guard Tyler Higby were the only ones to stay healthy. Reid was solid as was Higby, who started at three different spots. The key will be if junior center Matt Allen plays the way he did the last couple weeks and junior right guard Kevin Jarvis stays healthy. As for senior left tackle Cole Chewins, well, he missed the spring game, so who knows?
Keep an eye on some inexperienced guys who could take advantage like junior tackle AJ Arcuri and redshirt freshman Jacob Isaia as well as junior Luke Campbell and sophomore Blake Bueter, who each have starting experience.
►Q. What do you think the chances are the starter at RB for game 1 is the starter the entire season? — @JoeyMangino12
►A. Hmmm. Good question. Something tells me there’s a decent chance that could change as the season progresses. I think the safe bet for the opener is junior Connor Heyward. After that, I think just about anything could happen because the coaches are open to any number of guys getting a shot. Sophomore La’Darius Jefferson is entering just his second season as a running back and has plenty of upside while redshirt freshman Elijah Collins and freshman Anthony Williams had good springs. Also, don’t count out sophomore Weston Bridges.
If one of those other backs takes over, don’t expect Heyward to be phased out. He’s a versatile player who will still be used in several different positions, much like he did as a freshman in 2017.
►Q. Chances of FR/RS FR getting meaningful burn on either side of the line? (Dobbs or Brown? Kline or someone to fill D-end spot opposite Willekes?) — @LPTnBrisk
►A. Devontae Dobbs will have a shot on the offensive line, but much of that will depend on how they guys ahead of him play. He’ll likely be a guard and if Jarvis bounces back from an injury plagued 2018, it could allow Dobbs to take a redshirt season. The other option is tackle Nick Samac, who enrolled early and impressed the coaches playing a lot with the No. 2 offense at left tackle.
On defense, the odds are long a young player cracks the tackle rotation, though redshirt freshman Dashaun Mallory played well this spring. On the outside, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Parks Gissinger while it will be Michael Fletcher and Adam Berghorst are when they arrive on campus.
►Q. I'm very optimistic about 2019 Spartan football. Think the offense will regain their footing and the starting D be very good. Unlike some, my biggest concern is D depth. That unit had few injuries in 2018. Easy to doubt the O, but they were decimated by injuries in '18. Thoughts? — @NorthShoreRalph
►A. If it makes you feel any better, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel is on the same page. His goal this spring was to find 22 starters. That’s easy in the secondary where the Spartans are loaded with players and at defensive tackle. The bigger questions area at end and linebacker. We’ve covered the end position already so let’s look at linebackers. Senior Joe Bachie has been a workhorse but finding his backup has been ongoing. Fifth-year senior Tyriq Thompson has played some in the middle while redshirt freshman Edward Warriner has, too, though he was hurt this spring.
On the outside, Thompson, junior Antjuan Simmons and junior Brandon Bouyer-Randle will see plenty of action while redshirt freshman Jeslord Boateng had a good spring before getting hurt in the Green and White game. Redshirt freshman Chase Kline looked good playing with the second team and should be in the rotation after missing all of last season with an injury. Incoming freshmen Luke Fulton and Marcel Lewis are worth paying attention to this fall, as well.
►Q. Is Naquan Jones a pro after this season? — @Timo_Slice
►A. Probably not. He’ll be playing a ton of snaps spelling Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk and he’ll likely be in position to have a big senior year in 2020. So, the next level is probably there for Jones, but I have a hard time seeing it after this season.
►Q. Which position would you say is the Spartans’ biggest overall weakness coming into the 2019 season? OL? RB? DE? — @SpartyH
►A. There are questions at running back and defensive end, but to me, the biggest concern is offensive line. The Spartans believe they have the guys to turn it around and they hit that position hard in recruiting, but until the offensive line proves it can consistently control the game, the Michigan State offense will have trouble scoring points.
►Q. What former Spartan does Rocket Watts remind you most of? — @PeachJames
►A. Another good question. In recent years the name Keith Appling jumps out to me as a guy that is athletic and can get to the basket. The difference is Watts is a much better shooter than Appling. Watts might be more like Kalin Lucas, though there are some questions if Watts can run the point as well as Lucas did. He’ll likely need to at least a little bit, but if he scores like Lucas, then he’ll be doing just fine. I was also thinking back further to a guy like Charlie Bell. A pure scorer who became a pretty solid defender and had a long professional career.
►Q. Do you believe Nick Ward has NBA-level talent? I watch him play and appreciate his skills as an above-average college player, but I just don't see how he makes an NBA roster when his defense is still questionable, and he shows little desire to consistently rebound. — @WaiteMarc
►A. This a tough one. Ward is an outstanding low-post scorer, but at 6-foot-9 he’s a bit undersized and it’s not like the NBA is gravitating toward that type of player. So I’m with you, I’m not sure where he fits at the next level. That’s not to say Ward won’t have a professional career, it just might not include a bunch of years in the NBA. If he’s open to grinding in the G-League or heading overseas to make some money, then it will all work out for Ward.