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Michigan State: Five things we learned

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Tyler O'Connor looks for a receiver against Furman.

Learning curve

The offensive line will be a work in progress. We had a pretty good idea about this heading into the opener, especially considering three starters were gone from last year, including All-Americans Jack Conklin and Jack Allen. The first unit was impressive on the opening drive of the win over Furman, with fifth-year senior Kodi Kieler at center and new starters at both tackles, but consistency was hard to come by throughout the game. Offensive line coach Mark Staten did some juggling, getting fifth-year senior Benny McGowan some time at center and guard, but that was about it. We’ll have to see if others get a shot, including true freshman Thiyo Lukusa, but it could take some time for the unit to come together and allow the offense to find a rhythm.

O’Connor OK

Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is Michigan State’s starting quarterback for the first time and he had his ups and downs in the opener. Most of it was good as he was efficient throwing the ball and showed nice touch, especially on a touchdown pass to Felton Davis in the corner of the end zone and an earlier out pattern to Monty Madaris that had to be dropped in between two defenders. But there were a couple of bad decisions, including when he threw an interception in the fourth quarter and gave life to a team smelling an upset. He showed the ability to move in the pocket and find the open receiver, something that will be put to the test as the schedule gets tougher over the next few weeks.

Scott is No. 1

The Spartans went through all of 2015 using the running back-by-committee approach with LJ Scott sharing time with Madre London and Gerald Holmes. What is clear after one week is that Scott is the go-to guy in the backfield after carrying the ball 20 times for 105 yards and scoring a touchdown. London carried the ball five times and Holmes didn’t get a single snap on offense. It’s the way co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner wants it to be, though he said he still hopes to get work for all three. That might be tough, barring an injury, especially considering Scott could emerge the way Le’Veon Bell did in 2012. If that’s the case, even two running backs might be too much, though don’t expect them to run Scott into the ground.

Spotlight finally on MSU’s Madaris, and he shines

One-sided

Safety Montae Nicholson had an interception go in and out of his hands, but the safeties played well for the most part as Demetrious Cox has seven tackles and Khari Willis saw action in the nickel defense. Cornerback will be the interesting position to watch. Sophomore Tyson Smith started and played the first series but sophomore Vayante Copeland took over from there and Furman almost completely avoided throwing his way. It wasn’t the same on the other side as senior Darian Hicks was tested often. He had three pass breakups, including two in the end zone, but he also got flagged twice for pass interference. He’ll likely get the attention of many offenses this year and we’ll have to see if Smith gets more of a shot or perhaps one of several redshirt freshmen, including Josh Butler, David Dowell and Kaleel Gaines.

Improvement needed

There’s little doubting the effectiveness of Malik McDowell at tackle, but beyond that there weren’t a lot of answers provided against Furman. The pass rush wasn’t especially effective without the help of some blitzing and Furman was able to find its share of holes running the ball up the middle. There are plenty of new faces but the Spartans will need to shore things up. Graduate transfer Kevin Williams and redshirt freshman Raequan Williams got most of the work at tackle with some help from freshman Mike Panasiuk, while junior Demetrius Cooper and fifth-year senior Evan Jones got most of the work at end with graduate transfer Gabe Sherrod. We’ll have to see if true freshmen Josh King and Auston Robertson get a shot this year.