John Niyo and Matt Charboneau take a look at the Spartans (4-4) and they preview the Michigan-Maryland game. The Detroit News


East Lansing – As Michigan State finishes up its second bye in three weeks and prepares for the final four games of the season, there can’t be too many folks associated with the program who are happy with where the Spartans stand.

At 4-4 overall and just 2-3 in the Big Ten, Michigan State has lost any chance at winning the Big Ten East and competing for a conference championship, falling far short of preseason expectations. And with the uncertainty of the future of head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff, it makes for an odd final push to the season.

Is the focus to win as many games and reach the best bowl possible or start to think about the future by working in more young players on a team that is set to lose its share of experience? Heading into 2020, the Spartans will replace a three-year starter at quarterback and their leading receiver, while three of four starters on the defensive line – two linebackers and two defensive backs – will all graduate.

Regardless of whether Dantonio returns for season No. 14 and whether or not there are significant changes to his staff, the Spartans will need to rebuild around a core group of players.

Taking any potential coaching changes out of the equation, here’s a look at some names to keep an eye on as cornerstones of Michigan State’s future.

Elijah Collins, RB

The redshirt freshman burst onto the scene in the second week of the season, running for 192 yards in a victory over Western Michigan. Since then, things have leveled off, but Collins has still proven to be the Spartans’ best option in the backfield, carrying 115 times for 545 yards, good for an average of 4.7 yards a carry. The numbers are hardly eye-popping, but considering how the offense has struggled and the injuries along the offensive line, Collins has fared well, often turning nothing into at least a few positive yards.

The Spartans like to use several backs and freshman Anthony Williams has gotten some work this season, too. He’s another player that brings high expectations after playing well last spring. Also, keep an eye on freshman Brandon Wright, who got his first action last week. It’s the core of a good group of backs, which will be joined next season by incoming freshman Jordon Simmons. If the line starts to produce, it could allow MSU to actually move the ball on the ground.

Devontae Dobbs, J.D. Duplain, Nick Samac, OL

OK, this isn’t just one player, but it’s the meat of what should make up Michigan State’s offensive line over the next few years. These three are the most highly regarded and all three have seen action this year, with Duplain already past the four-game threshold for keeping a redshirt. They’re part of last season’s recruiting class that clearly put an emphasis on rebuilding the offensive line, with Dobbs the highest ranked. Expectations are high for all three, though, as Michigan State desperately needs to return to the type of offensive line play it had from 2013-15 when the likes of Jack Conklin and Jack Allen were the heart of a talented group.

Keep an eye on some other young players like redshirt freshman James Ohonba and freshman Spencer Brown. But Dobbs, Duplain and Samac are the trio that will need to develop for the Michigan State offense to have any chance of turning things around.

Julian Barnett, WR

He’s not exactly lighting things up with only four catches for 57 yards, but the opportunities have been limited for the true freshman. What he has shown is the physical ability to become a game-changer, the type of player opposing defenses have to game plan for. Barnett has exceptional speed – something the Spartans lack – along with optimal size at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds. He could also someday play on both sides of the ball as he was one of the top cornerbacks in the nation coming out of Belleville, but he’ll have the chance to become a difference-maker on offense. All he needs now is the opportunities that have been slow to come this season.

Michael Fletcher, DE

It might be hard to put this much on a player who has yet to play a down, but that’s the upside the 6-6 freshman from Flint Carman-Ainsworth has. At 260 pounds, he’s the perfect size for a defensive end and came to MSU ranked the No. 25 end in the country. Only a foot injury suffered during preseason camp derailed his freshman season, one that has yet to begin. However, he’s practicing now and seems likely to get on the field at some point in the final four games, giving a glimpse of what could be a potent future pass rush.

Getting after the quarterback is a high priority for the Spartans and they’ve struggled to do so this season. But the arrival of Fletcher and fellow freshman Adam Berghorst gives Michigan State a chance at adding a spark to the pass rush.

Theo Day/Payton Thorne, QB

Another one where we’re not listing one player. Instead, we’re highlighting how important the next quarterback will be for the Spartans after Brian Lewerke held the starting position for three years. What’s notable here is we’re not listing Rocky Lombardi, who will be a junior next season and has been Lewerke’s primary backup the past two seasons. However, at no point as Lombardi been terribly impressive, his lone highlight coming in the win over Purdue in 2018.

That’s why we’re looking to Day, the redshirt freshman who’s thrown only three passes this season, and Thorne, the true freshman who is redshirting. It’s a bit of an unknown with both – and, for that matter, incoming freshman Noah Kim – but we’re betting it’s Day or Thorne that eventually emerges as the Spartans’ quarterback of the future.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau