East Lansing – These days, it’s hard to find much to get excited about if you’re a fan of the Michigan State football team.
This season has been an unquestioned disappointment as the Spartans entered preseason camp with thoughts of getting back to the Big Ten championship game and winning a conference title for the first time since 2015.
Instead, the season has spiraled into a five-game skid complete with paltry offensive performances accompanied in the biggest games with a defense that gives up big plays on a regular basis and can’t finish games.
But if a silver lining exists with this season’s Spartans, it’s the fact that coach Mark Dantonio has played 12 true freshmen with at least a handful of those first-year players seeing significant action. In last week’s loss at Michigan, two true freshmen started on the offensive line while a third saw significant action in the second half. Coupled with an influx of talent at the skill positions – freshmen Julian Barnett and Tre Mosley started the week before – and there are some things to like about where the offense is headed.
Much of it is because of the play up front, where Nick Samac started at center and J.D. Duplain was at left guard. It was the second straight start for both players, and by the second half, they were joined by fellow freshman Devontae Dobbs at left tackle.
Those guys have done really outstanding for being true freshmen in a game like that last week,” offensive coordinator Brad Salem said. “As you look out there on Saturday you see Dobbs in there, too, and you’ve got three right next to each other. But there's valued in reps in it. It's impressive what they're physically able to do, and it's just an understanding.
“I think the reality of it comes back to them when they see it on film. ‘OK, that's what we're working for and talking about.’ Now they know a little bit more and that they need to push for that, but they've done a great job.”
Michigan State knew it needed to improve its offensive line play when it was putting together last season’s recruiting class. Dobbs, Duplain and Samac were at the front of a group of offensive linemen the Spartans brought in that also included Damon Kaylor and Spencer Brown.
It’s been that trio, namely Duplain and Samac, that have developed the quickest, both benefiting from enrolling early and going through spring practice.
It didn’t take Samac (6-foot-4, 293 pounds) long to feel like he was good enough to play at this level.
“Obviously my first chance I got was against Western Michigan,” Samac said. “I think that I played pretty well against them, but I only got a couple of drives and obviously going against Northwestern again, I got one drive. But I think the game that really stood out to me like, ‘OK, I can play,’ was Illinois. I just felt very calm and collected. I felt like even with the loud atmosphere and everything, I just felt like I was able to collect myself and just play. I just felt like football to me, just like it always is.”
Duplain (6-3, 289) was a versatile player in high school and began last spring on defense before switching back to offense in preseason camp.
“I'll play defense, of if they see me on the offensive line, I'll play offense,” Duplain said. “That's just my outlook on it, to be honest. Just wherever they see me, I know that I trust them. They're great coaches. They've coached a bunch of players and I trust whatever they say is best for my future.”
Both Allen and Duplain have made the most of their opportunities. It’s been forced to an extent because of injuries, but they’re proving they won’t be easy to push back to the sidelines. The same goes for Dobbs, who Dantonio made a point of getting experience in the Michigan game to prepare him for the intensity of a rivalry type game.
It was only a glimpse with all three together, but one that has Dantonio, who said this week he plans to be back next year, excited about the future.
“We played a lot of young players and we'll probably have to continue to do that, but they're good players,” Dantonio said. “Two years from now, what kind of offensive line are we going to have? Should be pretty good. They're good athletes, good players, but they're young.”
Michigan State at Rutgers
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, SHI Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Records: Michigan State 4-6, 2-5 Big Ten; Rutgers 2-8, 0-7
Line: Michigan State by 20.5