Lansing — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio took a quick break from the recruiting trail Friday to address the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association at their annual clinic at the Lansing Center.
It’s been as regular stop for Dantonio and members of his staff since he took over at Michigan State, and after an hour presentation that focused on program goals and more specifically on challenges defenses face these days with ever-changing offensive attacks, Dantonio was jumping back in his car and hitting the road to try and close out his 2017 recruiting class.
He was able to address a few issues, including the fact that the entire program has been analyzed after last season’s disappointing 3-9 finish, the first time Dantonio hasn’t taken the Spartans to a bowl game.
“There’s a lot of change that we’ll work through, probably so much that … I think change is inevitable every year,” Dantonio said. “You want to critique and change things. I mean, nuance changes and things change of offensively, defensively and special teams — everything. What we’ve got to do is critique everything in your program, take a systematic approach, identify the problem, find solutions.”
Dantonio addressed some of those problems in his presentation to the state’s high school coaches. Most of them aren’t ground-breaking, and the two he pointed out were the Achilles' heel for Michigan State in 2016 — turnover margin and the lack of pass rush.
As Dantonio noted, in the previous three seasons Michigan State piled up 116 sacks but got just 11 this past season. The turnover margin was also down as Michigan State was minus-5 in 2016 after ranking in the top 10 nationally the previous three seasons.
“Some of that is missing a sack, some of that is RPO (run/pass option), some of it is not understanding the situation,” Dantonio said. “The bottom line is sacks and takeaways win football games for you.”
Getting the right players also counts and that’s what Dantonio and his staff are focusing on until National Signing Day on Feb. 1. While the current players are going through winter conditioning, the coaches are scouring the country.
After recruiting in the glow of multiple championships the past few seasons, Dantonio said there’s just as much buzz about the Michigan State program now.
“Absolutely,” Dantonio said. “Prior to this season we won 40 out of 45 games, so all of our people we’re recruiting remember not just two years ago but they remember ’10, ’11 and ’12 and Le’Veon Bell. There’s a lot of things and a lot of opportunity for people as they come here so we are having a great recruiting class.”
MSU currently has 18 players, either committed or already enrolled, already in the class, which is ranked No. 19 nationally by Scout. Six of those commitments are four-star recruits and 12 are three-star prospects, according to Scout.
And as far as the players already on campus, the ones going through some of the toughest offseason workouts the Spartans have had, Dantonio believes they have the right attitude coming off last season.
“I think there’s a sense of purpose from our football team and we’re driving forward,” Dantonio said. “Guys are recognizing what they need to do and we’re working at it in workouts now and spending some different time doing some other thing as well in terms of preparation.”
Lewerke springing back
Dantonio declared last month the starting quarterback job is currently in the hands of Brian Lewerke, who missed the last four games of the season after breaking his left leg late in the loss to Michigan.
Lewerke, who will be a sophomore this season, has been throwing and is on target to be ready for spring practice.
“He’s good,” Dantonio said. “He’s out there doing things. He’s not full go yet, but he’s involved and doing things.”
Lewerke played four games last year and started twice, completing 31 of 57 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He’ll be competing with senior Damion Terry, redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver and incoming freshman Rocky Lombardi.
Michigan State has lost two players — Malik McDowell and Montae Nicholson -- early to the NFL along with the graduating class. Whether anyone else fails to return is still unknown.
Dantonio said at his season wrap-up news conference in December that he expected some attrition, but on Friday he wasn’t confirming any specific changes to the roster.
“I’m not gonna speak on that walking out of the clinic,” he said. “But yeah, sure there has.”
Michigan State has three players from the 2017 class already enrolled — wide receiver Hunter Rison, tight end Jack Camper and defensive back Josiah Scott.
Dantonio has been spending most of his time recruiting, but has been able to keep tabs on the newest Spartans.
“From what I’ve heard they’ve been very impressive,” Dantonio said. “I saw them this morning in the weight room and they’re doing very well.”