Silence surrounds start of Spartans' spring practice

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State begins spring practice on Saturday, however the only way to be sure of that is to wander by the practice fields,  blocked from view, and maybe hear the chirp of a whistle or see a football fly through the air.

In a break from the norm, the Spartans open spring drills with nary a peep as the program remains quiet in the wake of a sexual assault investigation that involves three players and staff member Curtis Blackwell, who has been suspended with pay.

The three players have not been identified as the Michigan State University Police continue to investigate and provide evidence at the request of the Ingham County Prosecutor. There is no timetable on when the prosecutor will decide on any charges, and in the meantime, the university is conducting a Title IX investigation while it has also hired an outside firm to “conduct a thorough and independent investigation into football program staff members’ compliance with university policy in connection with the allegations.”

It’s all led to silence from the program as coach Mark Dantonio last spoke publicly on Feb. 1 during a news conference for National Signing Day. On Feb. 9, the university announced the investigation into the program.

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Spring practice has typically included regular sessions with Dantonio as well as opportunities to talk with assistant coaches and players. As of now, according to a team spokesman, no media availability is scheduled, though that could change before the annual Green and White game April 1.

The offseason has been quieter than usual following a 3-9 season for the Spartans, a dramatic fall from the College Football Playoffs in 2015. Dantonio had one season wrap-up news conference in December and spoke briefly following an appearance at the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association clinic in January. Since then — other than signing day — he and the program have been silent.

It’s at least understandable considering Dantonio wouldn’t be allowed to speak specifically about any investigation or players who might or might not be involved.

However, it also provides a cloud of secrecy around a team that is undergoing changes. Dantonio said in January there would “absolutely” be attrition in the roster, but without the chance to see practice and with Michigan State not releasing a roster or depth chart, it would be a guessing game.

“Absolutely I do, I expect some attrition, but I can't go into specifics right now or names,” Dantonio said in December. “But I do expect that. We're going to find out who wants to be here and we're going to make sure that everybody is doing the correct things here and if they're not, then there will be some exits.”

The only certain early departures are defensive end Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson, who entered the NFL Draft, and offensive lineman Thiyo Lukusa, who confirmed that he left the program.

And there are plenty of questions that need to be answered for the Spartans this spring, and the quarterback position is right at the top of the list. Following the season, Dantonio indicated Brian Lewerke, who will be a sophomore this season, is the leader heading into spring drills ahead of senior Damion Terry, as well as redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver.

“I think he's done enough to warrant him to be the guy to beat out. He's the guy,” Dantonio said on December. “So, I say that with respect to Damion. Damion's been in and out with injuries and he played well in the Penn State game. But he's gotta maintain his health.”

Lewerke played in four games last season and started twice. He missed the final four games after breaking his leg late in a loss to Michigan, but he showed enough in his four games, going 31-for-57 for 381 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He also ran the ball 21 times for 149 yards.

Offensive line will also be a key spot to watch as there will be plenty of turnover. Seniors Kodi Kieler, Benny McGowan, Brandon Clemons and Miguel Machado are gone while Lukusa had a shot to be a starter before leaving. Brian Allen is back for his senior season and will likely start at center while guard Tyler Higby is coming off a strong redshirt freshman season that was cut short by an ankle injury.

Junior David Beedle should also play a key role, as will tackle Cole Chewins, who will enter his sophomore season. Plenty of young players will get a shot, including Matt Allen, Luke Campbell and AJ Arcuri, all who redshirted last season. And there’s also the chance Dennis Finley bounces back after a difficult 2016 when he was working back from a broken leg.

On the defensive side, there is just as much up in the air as the defensive line counted on four freshmen extensively last season, including tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk.

Linebacker loses Riley Bullough in the middle and Jon Reschke on the outside but sophomore-to-be Joe Bachie will likely take over there as the outside will be manned by senior Chris Frey and junior Andrew Dowell.

The most wide-open spots are likely in the secondary. Nicholson is gone as is Demetrious Cox, meaning the safety spot is wide open. A trio of juniors — Grayson Miller, Khari Willis and Matt Morrissey should have first crack though sophomore David Dowell and junior Jalen Watts-Jackson will be in the mix.

At cornerback, oft-injured Vayante Copeland should be back while Justin Layne played well as a true freshman. Junior Tyson Smith will need to take a jump, as well.

Aside from personnel, the coaching staff remains intact as Dantonio said he would make no changes, however, responsibilities could always be adjusted.

“It's the same staff we won the Big 10 championship that everybody was celebrating last year,” Dantonio said on December. “It's the same staff that won the Rose Bowl basically, same staff that went to the Cotton Bowl that had record-setting numbers in '14.”