Michigan State mailbag: Connor Heyward still has place in the offense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Everyone around Michigan State was in a much better mood this week, fans included.

And who wouldn’t be? Scoring 51 points in a game can do that, especially with an offense that has been so bad the previous 13 games.

He's no longer the No. 1 running back, but Connor Heyward could remain a versatile part of the Michigan State offense.

Obviously, the offense dominates the mailbag this week. We talk about where Connor Heyward fits in, and how much better did the offensive line really play.

And we entertain some Mark Dantonio successor questions and even mix in a quick hoops question.

Question. What is the future for Connor Heyward? FB, TE? — @pfnnewmedia

Answer. This is a good question, because Elijah Collins has clearly become Michigan State’s No. 1 running back and I still wouldn’t count out freshman Anthony Williams getting his share of work. With sophomore La’Darius Jefferson apparently moving into a short-yard role, that leaves little opportunity for Heyward. The benefit for him is that he is a versatile player, and Dantonio loves to use a committee of backs. However, when one back clearly becomes the premier guy — think Le’Veon Bell or Jeremy Langford — that committee goes away. That leaves Heyward to see more action like he did as a freshman, moving all around the offense, often playing in the slot as he did on a first-down grab against Western Michigan.

Q. Has Brad Salem figured something out or is it just we have a healthier starting lineup? — @TheRealUDJG

A. The key here is, do you mean figured something out from last season or from the opening week? The difference from Week 1 to Week 2 appeared to be mostly about execution. There was a little more zone blocking up front and obviously Collins became the primary back, but you simply saw guys getting on blocks that they didn’t last week, backs making the right reads and cuts and receivers hanging on to the ball.

As from last season, health is clearly a factor. Now that Kevin Jarvis is a couple of games in at left tackle, it’s starting to make the Cole Chewins injury seem like it’s not that big of a deal. So, the Spartans are relatively healthy, and that’s a big deal. There have been offensive changes, too. The tempo, while hardly quick, is much faster for MSU and Brian Lewerke is rarely under center. Throw in more RPOs and the offense has a different look.

More: Brad Salem credits offensive line’s ‘drastic’ improvement for Spartans’ spark

Q. Why don't our DBs play more press coverage? It seems like opposing QBs dink and dunk us to death and we refuse to stop it. One good note: we are tackling well. — @daveholz

A. I’m glad you’re staying positive, Dave. After all, when we start going after the defense, that officially qualifies as nit-picking. I haven’t charted the plays, but the base of Michigan State’s defense is still about playing press-man coverage. That said, Tressel has been for more flexible than Narduzzi was, and is willing to change things more often. However, another common theme for MSU’s defense has always been to avoid the big plays. They are gap sound against the run, press on the corners and don’t allow any big plays. It’s always been the approach. Yes, that means they’ll give up a lot of underneath stuff, but don’t expect a big shift where they’ll start panicking about passing yards allowed. It’s simply not their style, and quite frankly, it’s a style that’s proved pretty effective.

Q. Will zone blocking be the focus of the running game the rest of the season? — @thespartanbros

A. You’d have to think so. It’s far more practical for this offensive line that hasn’t shown the ability to run a lot of power and simply impose its will. Also, a zone blocking scheme allows a back to see where the hole develops, make a cut and go. It looks like that’s what Collins excels at. If the performance against Western Michigan is an indicator, expect more of the same.

Q. Where would you rank the Spartans if you had an AP vote? — @MattBuckelew

A. Hmmmm. First, I’m glad I don’t have a vote after doing it in 2015, 2016 and 2017. But I think MSU is ranked fairly. I’m sure you could argue about a few spots, but these things always seem to shake out. If the Spartans keep winning, a lot of those wins will come against teams ranked higher. Of course, that means they move up. So, I wouldn’t sweat the rankings two weeks in.

Q. Offensive line depth might make or break this season. What’s the ceiling with Arcuri and Chewins?  Do you think they return by October? — @JohnnyMacSparty

A. It could be a huge factor, which is why I think getting some snaps for Devontae Dobbs and Nick Samac was critical last week. We’ll start with AJ Arcuri. He’s been on extra points and field goals each of the first two weeks, which means he’s not THAT hurt. So, I think they’ve just decided Jarvis in the better option. As for Cole Chewins, back problems can be dicey. I haven’t heard a single encouraging word about his status, so I’m not sure when or if he makes it back.

Q.  Better fit as Dantonio Successor: Narduzzi, Salem or Fickell? — @pfnnewmedia

A. You’re challenging me this week. If Dantonio announced today that he was stepping down at the end of the season, each of those guys would be considered. We all know what Pat Narduzzi did during his time at MSU as a defensive coordinator and while he hasn’t won big at Pitt, it’s not exactly an easy job, and he did manage to get the Panthers to the ACC title game. Luke Fickell is an intriguing prospect, too, for what he’s done at Cincinnati, but I’m thinking if it all happened right now, Mike Tressel might get the edge. It has a lot to do with the old “what have you done for me lately?” mentality. Tressel is orchestrating one of the best defenses in the nation right now, and that might be enough to make up for the fact he’s never been a head coach and is only in his second year as a coordinator.

Q. Can MSU win it all in basketball this year? — @southLyon17

A. Of course. But whether the Spartans can or not hardly guarantees anything. If last season taught us anything, it’s that nothing is certain. I’m not sure you could have found many around college basketball that believed, once the Spartans beat Duke to reach the Final Four, that they weren’t the favorite. Of course, they didn’t even reach the title game, falling to Texas Tech.

But yeah, Michigan State has all the pieces. It’s got a veteran point guard (Cassius Winston) who might be the best player in the country, and emerging big (Xavier Tillman) who could be playing himself into the NBA, a sophomore wing (Aaron Henry) who is on the verge of a breakout season and tons of depth. It’s a pretty good group; we’ll just have to wait and see.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau