East Lansing — Projecting how things will play out in the Big Ten East is no simple task.
One of the toughest divisions in college football likely will have four teams in the preseason rankings, including Michigan and Ohio State almost certainly in the top 10. Add in Michigan State and Penn State, and all of them are capable of winning the title and reaching the conference championship game.
The focus here is on Michigan State and what the Spartans need to do to get back to the Big Ten title game for the first time since 2015. And while it might be tougher to nail down the other contenders, with Michigan State it’s simple: Can the offense come to life?
There is little debate over how good the Spartans are defensively after leading the nation in rushing defense in 2018 while also ranking in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense. In 2019, it’s all about the offense.
The Spartans began the quest to resurrect the offense when they reported for preseason camp on Wednesday before going through their first practice Thursday morning. There will be plenty to watch as Michigan State prepares for its Aug. 30 opener against Tulsa. Here are a few of the highlights:
Five story lines to watch
1. Finding the offense
The offense is the issue, and instead of making any drastic changes to his coaching staff, Mark Dantonio opted to simply shuffle the deck, changing the responsibilities for every one of his offensive assistants.
The biggest move was Brad Salem going from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and running backs coach. That led to Dave Warner being moved from the coordinator spot he held for five seasons back to quarterbacks coach, a spot he excelled at when he mentored the likes of Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins.
What sort of offense Salem, a former Division III head coach, runs is still a bit of a mystery, but style will matter little if the Spartans don’t improve on the 18.7 points a game they averaged in 2018. It was 13th in the Big Ten and 116th in the nation, and while it will be difficult to gauge before the Spartans take the field for the first time, you can bet it will be the No. 1 thing on the minds of the fans and the media over the next few weeks.
2. Can Lewerke bounce back?
The captain of the offense is the quarterback, and Brian Lewerke is clearly the man as he enters his fifth and final season with the Spartans. The biggest question is if a healthy Lewerke can return to the form he had in 2017 when he gained the second-most total yards in program history, or will he have trouble rebounding from an injury-plagued 2018 that saw him in and out of the lineup with a bad shoulder.
The Spartans are clearly hoping last season was the anomaly and Dantonio has consistently shown that he believes Lewerke is the best option ahead of sophomore Rocky Lombardi. That means there won’t be much of a quarterback battle over the next few weeks, but if the season starts slowly for Lewerke, you have to wonder how long that support lasts.
3. What's my line?
So much focus on Michigan State’s offensive struggles in 2018 pointed to the injuries at the skill positions — quarterback, running back and receiver included. But, where the Spartans also suffered significantly was along the offensive line.
The Spartans used nine different starting combinations last season and only right tackle Jordan Reid started all 13 games at the same position, with eight players starting at some point. With the unit relatively healthy — fifth-year senior Tyler Higby will be limited early in camp — the fight for spots should be intense.
Fifth-year senior Cole Chewins likely gets the call at left tackle with Higby at left guard. Junior Matt Allen will battle former walk-on Blake Bueter at center while junior Kevin Jarvis at right guard and Reid round things out. But keep an eye on the versatile Luke Campbell, a junior with starting experience, as well as incoming freshmen Devontae Dobbs and Nick Samac.
4. Another dominating defense
The defense doesn’t lose much, so the only real question that exists is if there is anything, outside a rash of injuries, that will keep them from dominating again?
Cornerback Justin Layne, linebacker Andrew Dowell and safety Khari Willis are gone, but the Spartans still have a handful of potential All-Americans to turn to, including defensive end Kenny Willekes, linebacker Joe Bachie, tackle Raequan Williams and cornerback Josiah Scott. The Spartans led the nation in rushing defense last season and they aspire to do so once again. What they hope to improve on is getting pressure on the quarterback and turning the ball over. If they add that to the mix, there might not be a better defense in the nation.
5. Staying power
Position battles and coaching moves are all something that deserves attention, but the thing most fans want to know is are the Spartans still a team that can win the Big Ten on a regular basis or are seasons like 2016 and 2018 becoming more of the norm.
It’s difficult to get that answer in preseason camp, but Dantonio has taken the program from an also-ran to a player not only in the conference but on the national stage. Winning the Big Ten every year is not easy from the East Division, and most understand that, but being in the mix every season matters. The way this group comes together will say a lot about what path the Spartans are on.
► Running back
L.J. Scott played in only five games last season, which led to plenty of opportunities to carry the ball. But then-sophomore Connor Heyward and freshman La’Darius Jefferson didn’t exactly take advantage. While the issues on the offensive line played a role, Heyward averages just more than 40 yards a game while Jefferson was at 23.2. Both will get their chance to break out this season, but expect redshirt freshman Elijah Collins to get a shot, too, along with freshmen Anthony Williams, an early enrollee, and Brandon Wright.
► Wide receiver
When healthy, the first two starters are not up for debate
Fifth-year senior Darrell Stewart Jr. is as consistent as they come while junior Cody White could be on the verge of an All-Big Ten type of season. Sophomore Jalen Nailor also projects to start, but he had trouble staying healthy in his first season, a trend that could continue.
That means depth will matter. Juniors Cam Chambers and Laress Nelson have the most experience, but they battled injuries last year, as well. Brandon Sowards also is back for a sixth season and sophomore C.J. Hayes remains an intriguing option. Throw in freshmen Tre Mosley and Tre’Von Morgan and there will be plenty of players fighting to get on the field.
► Defensive end
One side is a no-brainer as Willekes is back after earning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year honors in 2018. He had 20.5 tackles for loss, and while he’ll be coming back from the broken leg he suffered in the Redbox Bowl, he’s been full-go for a few months and doesn’t expect any issues.
The other side has been a continuous battle. Junior Jacub Panasiuk has played well, but has battles injuries while junior Drew Beesley has provided depth. Sophomore Jack Camper is ready to go after missing the spring, while redshirt freshman Zach Slade looks to get a shot. A couple of freshmen to keep an eye on include Adam Berghorst and Michael Fletcher.
Junior Josiah Scott locks down one side of the field for the Spartans, but he’ll have a new partner this season with Layne off to the NFL.
The easy choice to step in is fifth-year senior Josh Butler. He’s been steady throughout his career and if healthy should solidify the other cornerback spot. But injuries have cropped up and depth there will be critical. Redshirt sophomore Shakur Brown has shown flashes and will be in the mix, along with fellow juniors Tre Person and Dominique Long, who has also played safety. Some intriguing names to follow include redshirt freshman Kalon Gervin and freshman Julian Barnett.
► Tight end
Matt Dotson is back for his junior year and should see plenty of action. However, he lacked consistency last season, potentially leaving the door open for someone like redshirt freshman Trenton Gillison. He was highly recruited coming out of high school and got on the field for one game last season. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he’s strong and athletic and could create matchup problems for opposing defense. Also pay attention to junior Noah Davis, who missed last season with an injury but could be ready to go for 2019.
Why MSU wins the East
► Sophomore Lewerke returns: He was a true playmaker as Michigan State won 10 games in 2017, using both his arm and his feet. If he flourishes in Salem’s new offense, Lewerke could again put up big numbers and have the offense humming.
► They stay healthy: This is likely true for every team, but after suffering significant injuries at nearly every offensive position last season, it’s critical for the Spartans. Find some cohesion, namely on offense, and things can turn around quickly.
► The defense doesn’t miss a beat: This seems more likely, considering who’s back for the Spartans. Fourth-quarter scoring was a problem at times last season, but that was more on the amount of time on the field. If the offense improves, the defense will get more of a break and the fourth quarter numbers should improve.
Why MSU won't win the East
► The offense remains stuck: The Spartans don’t need to be great on offense, they simply need to be OK. That’s still a big jump from 2018, and if it takes time for Salem’s scheme to take hold, it could send things down the wrong path.
► The injuries pile up: We saw what they did to the offense last season, and the same thing would likely doom that unit again. The defense appears to have more depth, but a rash of issues on that side of the ball could derail things, as well.
► The schedule: The Spartans play all three nonconference games at home, but the Big Ten slate is tough. MSU travels to Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan. Yes, the Spartans have fared well in Ann Arbor and Columbus, but those four road games will all be brutal.
Projected Michigan State starters
QB – Brian Lewerke, Sr.
FB – Max Rosenthal, Soph.
TB – Connor Heyward, Jr.
LT – Cole Chewins, Sr.
LG – Tyler Higby, Sr.
C – Matt Allen, Jr.
RG – Kevin Jarvis, Jr.
RT – Jordan Reid, Jr.
WR – Darrell Stewart, Sr.
WR – Cody White, Jr.
WR – Jalen Nailor, Soph.
DE – Kenny Willekes, Sr.
DT – Mike Panasiuk, Sr.
NT – Raequan Williams, Sr.
DE – Jacub Panasiuk, Jr.
STAR – Antjuan Simmons, Jr.
MIKE – Joe Bachie, Sr.
SAM – Tyriq Thompson, Sr.
CB – Josh Butler, Sr.
FS – David Dowell, Sr.
SS – Xavier Henderson, Soph.
CB – Josiah Scott, Jr.