Five goals for MSU's bowl practices: Big holes to fill all over

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State won’t be playing for a championship, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth watching when the Spartans take on Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27.

With so much up in the air heading into next season, the matchup from Yankee Stadium could at least offer a glimpse at who some of the key contributors might be heading into next season.

None of that answers the biggest question: What will coach Mark Dantonio’s staff look like when Michigan State opens the 2020 season? However, the Spartans must replace five starters on defense and at least a couple on offense, namely the quarterback.

So, regardless of who will be joining Dantonio on the sidelines next season, here’s a look at what Michigan State will be looking to get out of this season’s bowl practices.

Rocky Lombardi

Post-Lewerke era

It’s been a while since the Spartans have had a full-blown quarterback competition, but that’s exactly what will take place next spring and into fall camp as fifth-year senior Brian Lewerke gets set to play his final game. Lewerke has had his ups and downs and never really took off after an impressive sophomore season in 2017. However, Dantonio maintained Lewerke always gave Michigan State the best chance to win, which creates a few questions about who has been backup to Lewerke. Sophomore Rocky Lombardi saw limited action late in 2018 when Lewerke was hurt but really never seemed to push to take over as the starter. Redshirt freshman Theo Day saw a handful of snaps this season, but nothing significant, while freshman Payton Thorne did not play.

Dantonio indicated after the bowl announcement that each of the quarterback would see first-team work during practice, but he stopped short of committing to whether or not anyone outside of Lewerke would play in the game. It seems likely that Lewerke won’t go the entire game, but the real question is who else plays and how much? The answer to that question could give an indication of where the staff is leaning heading into the offseason.

More: Pitt's Pat Narduzzi defends best friend Mark Dantonio: Criticism 'ridiculous'

Offensive line issues 

Michigan State hasn’t had an effective offensive line since it reached the playoffs in 2015. It was in that position because three of its starters ended up in the NFL. This season’s offensive line has been a lot like the previous two seasons – injured and inconsistent. Even if the Spartans had remained relatively healthy, it’s fair to wonder how much better they would have been. However, there was a bright side to the injuries – it allowed young players like freshmen Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain to see significant action in the second half of the season, giving them a head start on establishing the next generation of offensive linemen.

Both Samac, at center, and Duplain, at left guard, have started three games and should continue in that role in the bowl game. A wise move would be to include fellow freshman Devontae Dobbs at left tackle to really allow the young players to get more work together, especially considering that trio is the core of the future up front. There will be others that could get a look in the bowl game, but Samac and Duplain should see as many snaps as possible while the Spartans must decide whether or not to burn the redshirt on Dobbs.

Antjuan Simmons

Linebacker lineup

Arguably the most important position on the Michigan State defense is middle linebacker, and it’s one that will have to be filled before next season. That process has been accelerated because of the suspension of senior captain Joe Bachie, but it was going to take place one way or another. The way the Spartans have handled it over the last half of the season doesn’t give much of an indication as senior Tyriq Thompson started the last two games of the season while junior Antjuan Simmons started twice.

Simmons will likely move back to the outside, meaning the Spartans will have to find another middle linebacker. Sophomore Noah Harvey saw a handful of snaps late in the season and Dantonio indicated he’d have a good shot to take over next season, but it’s worth paying attention to whether or not redshirt freshman Edward Warinner gets any work in the bowl game or another young player who hasn’t been able to crack the playing group to this point.

Rising candidates 

While the offensive line continues to be a work in progress, for the first time in a couple seasons the Spartans will need to fill some significant holes on the defensive line. End Kenny Willekes as well as tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk will graduate, creating quite the void up front for one of the best units in the nation. Junior Naquan Jones and redshirt freshman Jacob Slade will continue to get work at tackle, but who might join that rotation will be worth watching. Redshirt freshman Dashaun Mallory and freshman Jalen Hunt are two names to watch in the bowl game.

As for the edge, it’s more up in the air. Jacub Panasiuk will be back for one more season but the Spartans have high hopes for Michael Fletcher, who saw a handful of snaps against Michigan after being hurt early in the season. He’ll likely see plenty of snaps in the bowl game while it will be worth watching to see if freshman Adam Berghorst, who played three games at tight end, will get any work on defense.

Don't underestimate winning mojo 

In a perfect world, any coaching staff changes would have been made before the bowl game, giving everyone an indication of what things might look like heading into next season. Short of that, there’s one overall goal the Spartans will have in the Pinstripe Bowl – win. It seems fairly simple, but there is no doubt the team will feel much better if they’re able to go into offseason workouts with a 7-6 record as opposed to a 6-7 mark. It doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but the Spartans need to try and find momentum wherever they can.

There’s still no telling what sort of changes Dantonio makes and the roster could always see more attrition. But taking the positive feeling of a bowl victory into winter workouts and spring practice will never be a bad thing, especially for a team that will be trying to bounce back from two straight disappointing seasons.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl


Kickoff: Dec. 27, 3:20 p.m., Yankee Stadium, New York

TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM

Records: Michigan State 6-6, Wake Forest 8-4

Line: Michigan State by 4.5

Twitter: @mattcharboneau