Five difference-makers for Michigan State heading into the fall

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Here are five key players for the Spartans heading into the 2019 football season.

Brian Lewerke, QB

It might seem obvious to pick the quarterback, but for Michigan State and its fifth-year senior, all eyes will be under center when the season kicks off. Lewerke had some talking Heisman before the 2018 season began after he piled up the second-most total yards in Michigan State history as a sophomore in 2017. However, it didn’t take long for things to go wrong last season. The interceptions jumped for Lewerke as the offense stalled, averaging just 18.7 points a game, better than only Rutgers. Injuries were a big factor, to Lewerke and others. The offensive line was hampered the entire season while the receiving corps and even starting running back L.J. Scott battled ailments all season. The biggest, though, was to Lewerke. He injured his shoulder significantly in the Penn State win midway through the season and was never the same, moving in and out of the starting lineup as he tried to play through the bad shoulder. Lewerke is healthy now and the offensive coaching staff has changed. How much? We’ll have to wait and see. What is clear, however, is that whatever offense the Spartans are running they’ll need Lewerke at his best to make it work.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke was 184-for-339 for 2,094 yards, including eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season.

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Cody White, WR

The rangy, big-play receiver was primed for a breakout season in 2018 before a broken hand sidelined him for four games. Still, White had 42 receptions, good for second on the team, while his 555 receiving yards were the most. He also added two touchdown grabs, but his absence in the middle of the season played a big part in the offense’s troubles. Remaining healthy this season will be critical for White, who set the MSU true freshman record for 490 receiving yards in 2017 while his 35 catches were the second-most. With Felton Davis off to the NFL, there is a void that needs to be filled and White is the most likely to fill it. He won’t be alone. Darrell Stewart Jr. is back for his final season with the Spartans while Jalen Nailor is healthy entering his sophomore season. But if the offense is rolling, odds are it will be with White playing a big role.

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Kenny Willekes, DE

In an odd way, suffering a broken leg in the Redbox Bowl loss to Oregon might have helped Michigan State. It was early in the recovery process that Willekes decided the NFL could wait and that he’d return for his senior season. The only question now is — how much better can Willekes get? He led the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss, led the Spartans with 8.5 sacks and was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year. And according to Pro Football Focus, Willekes led all edge rushers in the nation with 23 quarterback hits and ranked sixth with 39 QB hurries. His return has led to Willekes being named to several preseason All-American teams while providing the Spartans with one of the most disruptive defensive players in the country.

Joe Bachie, LB

Entering his final season with the Spartans, Bachie is the prototype for middle linebackers. His understanding of the game is off the charts while his tenacity and toughness is just as impressive. What the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder lacks in size he more than makes up for with his nose for the football. He’s led the Spartans in tackles in each of the past two seasons with 100 in 2017 and 102 last year while becoming the third middle linebacker under Mark Dantonio to be named first-team All-Big Ten, joining Greg Jones and Max Bullough. Bachie has started 26 straight games for Michigan State, and with him in the middle again this season, don’t expect there to be much of a drop-off for one of the top defenses in the nation.

Josiah Scott, CB

A freshman All-American in 2017, Scott was expected to have a huge season in 2018. However, a knee injury suffered in preseason camp forced him to miss the first eight games of the season. He returned to start the final five games and still recorded seven pass breakups and grabbed a pair of interceptions. He was named the Redbox Bowl Defensive MVP after recording a career-high four pass breakups in addition to three tackles, including one for an 8-yard loss. Scott opted not to sit out one of the final five games to ensure a redshirt season, meaning he’s a junior and could be playing his final season with the Spartans. If he continues to lock down one side of the field, that season could be another dominant one for the Michigan State defense.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau