Michigan State mailbag: Leash appears long for Mark Dantonio

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State is 24-24 under head coach Mark Dantonio since the end of the 2015 season.

The Michigan State mailbag is back and, not surprisingly, we’re football heavy this week.

After coach Mark Dantonio announced his intention to return as the head coach next season, folks want to know what that means for the rest of his staff, for recruiting, and more importantly, the future of the program.

We mix in one basketball question, too on — surprise — Joey Hauser, as the Spartans get set to hit the road for next week’s Maui Invitational.

Question. If Dantonio comes back to rebuild, how long is the leash? And what assistant would come knowing that his boss is on the hot seat? — @joebaik

Answer. It’s a fair question, but I think we’re seeing now that Dantonio’s leash is fairly long. When you look at the four seasons since the playoff appearance, the results have not been that of a championship coach. With two games left this season, they are 24-24 since the end of the 2015 season with a miserable 3-9 mark in 2016 included. It’s not the sort of performance that gets a coach who is the winningest in program history fired, but you’d think it would at least come with some talk about what direction things are headed. That clearly didn’t happen based on the coaching shuffle last offseason.

How much that changes moving forward is debatable. Is Bill Beekman the kind of AD who walks in and puts demands on Dantonio? I’m not so sure he is, which leads me to believe that the next move is completely up to Dantonio. I think he understands changes need to be made, but I’m not sure he’s on a “hot seat,” so that might not have a whole lot of effect on an assistant’s decision.

Michigan State's defense has not lived up to its early billing as once of Mark Dantonio's best.

Q. What do you think happened with the defense this season? It has become mediocre to average-at-best. It seems like Arizona State's game-winning drive just debilitated this unit. It was never the same after that. — @daveholz

A. I think there is something to the defense needing to be perfect almost every week for three straight seasons. That sort of pressure can’t be easy, but when the offense consistently ranks near the bottom of most categories in the nation, that’s the position the defense has been in. I think that loss did play a role in this defense feeling like close losses are inevitable, something that got much worse against Illinois.

That said, we can’t ignore the way the secondary has played, never truly replacing the likes of safety Khari Willis and cornerback Justin Layne. The Spartans simply haven’t measured up in the back end like they have in the past, and the pass rush has been nonexistent, making you wonder how much the leg injury affected Kenny Willekes. So, losing some personnel was part of it, but I think mentally this unit is spent.

Q. How bad will Sondland testimony hurt Trump defense of no quid pro quo? And how much playing time will Lombardi get from here on out? — @JaChryss

A. We’ll leave the first part to another section in the paper and focus on the question about backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi. Right now, it doesn’t sound like there’s much push to get any time for another quarterback, whether it’s Lombardi, Theo Day or Payton Thorne. From talking to Mark Dantonio and Brad Salem, the goal is to win the last two games, and Brian Lewerke gives the Spartans the best chance to do that.

Maybe that changes if they get up big in either of these final two games, and perhaps it would be shifted if they make a bowl game. For now, though, it looks like it’s Lewerke’s ship the rest of the way.

Expect Brian Lewerke to maintain the reins at quarterback for Michigan State for the rest of the season.

Q. How does Dantonio get back on the recruiting trail and convince kids to come to his program? What should be his major focus in restructuring his staff? — @beverlymaison

A. A fair question but, frankly, it’s an issue they’ve already been dealing with. You better believe other teams have been recruiting against Michigan State by highlighting the uncertain future of Dantonio and his staff. There’s no real secret it to it, but telling everyone he’ll be back next season certainly helps. The sooner they know about the rest of the staff the better, but that won’t be clear until the season is over, and that’s only days before the early signing period.

As for the focus of the staff, there needs to be some major work on the offensive side, but as much as anything, the Spartans need dynamic recruiters. It’s one thing to know the X’s and O’s, but you need guys to run it, and Michigan State has been lagging in the last few classes.

Q. If they win out is there any possibility they avoid the Quick Lane Bowl? — @KebabKyle

A. Sure. In fact, I think if they win out there’s a decent chance a game like the Pinstripe Bowl would opt for Michigan State over Illinois, which could also be 6-6. The days of going by win-loss record are long gone, something MSU fans know all about, so bowls at that level are picking teams they hope put people in the seats and bring eyes on TV.

Illinois has had a nice resurgence and, of course, beat Michigan State, but you have to wonder if the fan base is ready to travel to a mid-level bowl for a .500 team. They might, and that would put MSU in Detroit, but I don’t think it’s a slam dunk.

Q. Seems likely next year would be Dantonio's last, how's he going to recruit kids that know he probably won't be there by the time they get to their junior years? — @backpackeracker

A. I’m not sure I’m with you on assuming next year would be his last. I tend to believe the decision to come back locks him in for another few years, considering this thing won’t get turned around in a year. Perhaps something happens where a coach-in-waiting is named and that changes, but for now, I’d bet if Dantonio is, indeed, back next year, he’ll be back for more than that.

Q. Tressel’s future hasn’t been discussed much, but I think it is warranted. This D started the year wanting to be Coach D’s best. Instead it is one of Coach D’s worst. Tressel’s calls (rushing 3) have played a big role in that. Does he return as DC? —@WaiteMarc

A. Again, fair question, but the simple answer is yes, I’d suspect he’s back as defensive coordinator. Mike Tressel has been a big part of this defense for 13 years and he has been at the helm for some of the best units MSU has had, so I’m not going to destroy him for this season. They’re short some guys in the back end, but I’d suspect that can be improved fairly quickly. If any of the assistants deserve a chance to prove they have the answers, it’s defensive guys like Tressel and Ron Burton.

Q. What’s the most realistic scenario RE: assistant coaches? — @ArpanLobo

A. It’s tough to guess what Dantonio is thinking, but you’d have to expect some offensive changes. Dave Warner is making a lot for a QB coach and I’m sure he’d want another shot somewhere as an OC. Jim Bollman could easily decide to retire. What’s next for Mark Staten? Lot of ways this can go. Do you want to keep giving Salem a chance to run HIS offense or do you want a new coordinator who hires his own guys? We’ll see. Defense is another one to at least look at. Secondary play hasn’t been the same since Harlon Barnett left. Do you make a move there with Paul Haynes and Terrence Samuel? A lot to sort out when this season ends.

Q. At this point would it be better if Joey Hauser was declared ineligible? It’s seems the pieces mesh well and will continue to develop. — @mikev971

A. This isn’t a crazy notion, and one I would have dismissed a few weeks ago. But the way Thomas Kithier and Malik Hall have played early in the season, you could see where the Spartans suddenly have a logjam at the 4 with minutes getting difficult to split. There’s no doubt Hauser would be an instant upgrade, but I wonder about chemistry as you start to limit the minutes of Hall and Kithier, while almost completely cutting Marcus Bingham out of the rotation. Again, in a pure basketball sense, this is not a bad problem, but you have to wonder what that does to Bingham, how it might stunt the growth of Hall and how much it limits how well Kithier plays off Xavier Tillman.

That said, you better believe Hauser jumps right in if he’s declared eligible, and his availability would make Michigan State go from a favorite to a heavy favorite to win it all.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau