East Lansing — As the Michigan State football program continues to move through an offseason dominated by negative off-field issues, it won’t be too long before the focus shifts back to what’s happening on the field.
The Spartans were already looking at a difficult spring and summer, trying to figure out a way to bounce back from a dismal 3-9 season that included seven straight losses at one point and finished with Mark Dantonio failing to get his team to a bowl game for the first time in his 10 seasons at the helm.
As season No. 11 is set to begin in roughly three months, Dantonio and his staff have a monumental task ahead to turn things around, and the problems off the field won’t make that any easier. That’s because, of the eight players who are no longer with the team, nearly all of them were going to be counted on to make an impact in 2017.
Instead, the depth will be tested and, for the second straight season, relying on younger, inexperienced players will be the reality for the Spartans.
However, Dantonio said this week he believes the right people are in place to get it done.
“We’ve got a lot of great young men on our football team, a lot of young people that are doing many things in our community, a lot of guys who do an outstanding job in the classroom, on the football field, and off the field,” Dantonio said. “So we need to reaffirm those things and we need to get ready to play football games.
“It’s been a tough nine months, not just six. It’s been a tough nine months with the season, etc., these things that have occurred these last six months. But when you see problems, you push through problems. That’s always been my way of dealing with things, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. But I feel like today is an end point in some respects for us in some ways. It’s a new beginning for some of us. So we need to take advantage of that. … We will get back to business as usual.”
Business as usual on the field has been winning, and getting that back will be tougher now as the roster has been depleted. With that, here’s a look at what the Spartans will be working with when they get back to practice in early August.
Sophomore Brian Lewerke will get his chance to be the starter from day one after playing well in limited time last season before a broken leg knocked him out for the final four games of the season. He has the confidence of the coaching staff, but he’s only played four games and started twice, so there is some uncertainty heading into the season with Lewerke at the helm.
Fifth-year senior Damion Terry is still around but nagging injuries, including one this spring, have consistently kept him from getting on the field. Messiah deWeaver, who redshirted last season, was also limited in the spring and has yet to take a snap in a game. Incoming freshman Rocky Lombardi is highly thought of, but if Lewerke struggles, another quarterback carousel could ensue.
The one position that is as solid as any in the Big Ten is running back. The only issue the Spartans have there is having enough carries to go around. LJ Scott will be back for his junior season and should, once again, get the bulk of the work while fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes is as steady as they come. Add in junior Madre London and Michigan State will have plenty of options in the running game.
Wide receiver/tight end
Here’s the first place the roster attrition comes into play as Donnie Corley was coming off an impressive freshman season where he caught 33 passes for 453 yards and three touchdowns. He was primed for a big sophomore season but was dismissed from the team after being charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct. That leaves the receiver position wide open.
Sophomore Trishton Jackson saw limited work as a freshman but had a huge spring game and could quickly emerge as the No. 1 receiver while junior Felton Davis still has plenty of upside. Cam Chambers had a solid spring after redshirting last season and sophomore Justin Layne could always take a few snaps while playing primarily on defense. Incoming freshman Hunter Rison enrolled early and played in the spring, clearing the path for him to make an early impact, while Cody White comes to campus with high expectations.
Tight end will see some new faces as Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles are gone. Junior Matt Sokol should get plenty of work, as will redshirt freshman Noah Davis. Incoming freshman Matt Dotson was a four-star recruit and will get a chance to play, as well.
The Spartans will be young up front, and the decision in February by Thiyo Lukusa to leave school and give up football after his freshman season doesn’t help. He had a good chance to start at right tackle and now MSU will likely go with redshirt freshman Luke Campbell with sophomore Cole Chewins starting on the left side. Senior Brian Allen is the anchor at center while junior David Beedle will likely start at right guard and sophomore Tyler Higby is coming back from a broken ankle and should start at left guard.
Depth will be key as Matt Allen and A.J. Arcuri will get a shot after redshirting last season and senior tackle Dennis Finley is a wild card who has struggled coming back from a broken leg suffered in 2015.
The position hardest hit by attrition as Josh King and Auston Robertson, two players that could have been the starters at each end, are gone after being charged with sexual assault. Add in the uncertain status of senior Demetrius Cooper, who was charged with spitting on an East Lansing code enforcement officer, and end is up in the air. If Cooper is back, he’ll likely start while sophomore Kenny Willekes is coming off a solid spring. It’s thin from there with junior Dillon Alexander and sophomore Justice Alexander seeing limited time and redshirt freshman Mufi Hill-Hunt working back from a knee injury.
The inside is more solid with sophomores Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk finishing strong in 2016 while redshirt freshman Naquan Jones looked good in the spring. Junior Gerald Owens and sophomore Kyonta Stallworth provide depth.
The starters should be solid — junior Andrew Dowell and senior Chris Frey on the outside and sophomore Joe Bachie in the middle — but losing Jon Reschke means losing a potentially dominant player. He missed most of 2016 with an injury, but Reschke has been a tackling machine. However, he left the team in the winter after making an insensitive comment to a former teammate. But there is depth, though most of it is young outside of senior Shane Jones and junior Byron Bullough. Sophomore Tyriq Thompson had a solid spring, as did redshirt freshman Brandon Randle. Incoming freshman Antjuan Simmons could make an immediate impact, as well.
Another spot hit by attrition as Demetric Vance was dismissed after being charged with sexual assault while Kenney Lyke and Kaleel Gaines have decided to transfer. The safety spot seems set with juniors Grayson Miller and Khari Willis likely starters along with junior Matt Morrissey seeing significant time. Sophomore David Dowell has played both safety and corner and could be in the same position this season.
At corner, Layne is one sure starter but it’s up in the air from there. Junior Tyson Smith’s status is unknown after he said recently on Twitter that he suffered a stroke last season and junior Vayante Copeland has been dealing with off-field issues. Sophomore Josh Butler has limited experience, as does junior T.J. Harrell. True freshman Josiah Scott enrolled early and could get a chance to play early while four more true freshmen will be on campus in the fall.
The Spartans will need to break in a new kicker this season with the graduation of Michael Geiger and it’s shaping up to be an interesting battle. Redshirt freshman Matt Coghlin and incoming freshman Cole Hahn will likely battle to get the call while senior Brett Scanlon could also be in the mix. Junior Jake Hartbarger will once again handle the punting duties.
The return game will have a new look, as well. Junior Brandon Sowards has experience returning punts but players like Jackson and sophomore Darrell Steward could add some punch to the special teams, bringing back both punts and kickoffs.