Scouting the Michigan State offense: Questions abound

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down Michigan State’s offense.

Lewerke's work

Right or wrong, most of the attention and scrutiny of an offense lands at the feet of the quarterback. Eliminate injuries and questionable play-calling last season and it was clear Brian Lewerke did not have a good season. Michigan State’s offense ranked among the worst in the nation.

Even before Lewerke injured his shoulder he was not playing well, throwing seven interceptions in the first six games. It was a far cry from 2017 when Lewerke threw only seven interceptions the entire year while connecting for 20 touchdown passes and running for five more.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke will look to bounce back from a disappointing and injury-riddled 2018 season.

If Michigan State turns things around offensively this season it will be because of Lewerke. Yes, he’ll need his offensive line to play well and for his receivers to remain healthy, but the opportunity is there for the fifth-year senior to replicate his sophomore season and potentially build on that performance. If he does, it could be a special season for the Spartans. If not, there could be plenty of folks wondering if Rocky Lombardi or Theo Day deserve a shot.

Reviving the run

Michigan State’s offensive identity has always been centered around running the ball. However, the early injury last season to LJ Scott forced the Spartans to scramble in the backfield. The injuries up front played a role, but the inability to find a consistent lead running back was just as vital to Michigan State averaging just 124.8 yards a game, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten.

Identifying the No. 1 back this season has been an important part of camp and junior Connor Heyward has the most experience, along with sophomore La’Darius Jefferson.

Both saw significant action last season, with Heyward leading the way with 529 yards and five touchdowns on 118 carries, but neither put a stranglehold on the top spot. Expect both to get a shot as the season begins, but also keep an eye on redshirt freshman Elijah Collins as well as freshman Anthony Williams. The only question there is Williams, who suffered an injury early in preseason camp, putting his status in question as the season kicks off.

Darrell Stewart Jr. is part of a deep and talented receiving group for Michigan State.

Quite a catch

The Spartans are not lacking talent at the wide receiver position, they just need them to stay healthy. Fifth-year senior Darrell Stewart, junior Cody White and sophomore Jalen Nailor — the expected starters — all have the ability to be game-changers.

Stewart is the solid veteran who makes tough catches and picks up yards after the reception while White is a budding star. Nailor has game-break speed, but all three battled injuries last season. Stay on the field and the trio could be as good as any in the Big Ten.

The depth is also talented, but has been just as injury prone. Junior Cam Chambers, junior Laress Nelson, sophomore C.J. Hayes and sixth-year senior Brandon Sowards were all hurt last year, too, but each could play a significant role this season, namely Chambers, the former four-star recruit who is looking for a breakout. A pair of true freshmen — Julian Barnett and Tre Mosley — could also crack the rotation, giving Lewerke plenty of weapons.

On the line

It starts up front with any offense and that’s the case for the Spartans. The only problem is the unit up front last season was so riddled with injuries it never found any rhythm. Michigan State used nine different starting combinations on the offensive line and only Jordan Reid at right tackle started all 13 games in the same position.

Finding the right combination this season has been the goal for offensive line coach Jim Bollman and much of it, again, depends on health. Fifth-year senior left tackle Cole Chewins has been limited in camp, and will miss the opener, while fifth-year senior Tyler Higby is working his way back from offseason surgery. Juniors Matt Allen and Kevin Jarvis are expected to start at center and right guard, but many combinations are possible.

Junior A.J. Arcuri and sophomore Blake Bueter will be in the mix, as will versatile junior Luke Campbell. But there is plenty of young talent pushing for time, as well. Redshirt freshman Jacob Isaia is ready to play, while fellow redshirt freshman James Ohonba is finally healthy. And a large group of true freshmen — Devontae Dobbs, JD Duplain, Nick Samac and Spencer Brown — are all pushing for playing time. The pieces are there to be strong up front, the key is finding the right combination.

Salem's lot

Mark Dantonio opted against making wholesale changes to his coaching staff after last season, instead opting to simply reshuffle the deck.

That leaves Brad Salem in charge of the offense after spending the last six seasons coaching the quarterbacks. What changes he might make have been kept under wraps, but whatever adjustments the former Division III head coach does make you can bet they will be put under a microscope.

Whether or not it’s a drastic shift from what Michigan State has always run under Dantonio won’t be revealed until the season opener. However, no matter what it looks like, there’s no doubt every play will be dissected. Early success will be vital and could build some momentum. Struggles in the first few weeks, though, could allow some doubt to start creeping in fairly quickly.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau