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Michigan State’s seven-win improvement last fall helped quickly put a miserable 2016 in the rearview mirror for the Spartans.

But with preseason camp quickly approaching, taking that next step in 2018 will be the focus in East Lansing. The Spartans return a wealth of starters on both sides of the ball as 23 players have starting experience, including 11 on offense, nine on defense and three specialists.

Needless to say, optimism is high for a core group that won 10 games in 2017, including a blowout victory over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl while picking up Big Ten East wins over Michigan and Penn State.

The schedule is favorable to make a run at winning the division and getting back to the Big Ten title game for the first time since 2015 as Michigan State gets Michigan and Ohio State at home and avoids playing West Division favorite Wisconsin.

The season kicks off Aug. 31 against Utah State, but until then, here’s a look at five keys to the Spartans’ season:

Defensive front

The Spartans are set on the interior as junior tackles Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams return after helping Michigan State become the No. 2 rushing defense in the nation in 2017, allowing 95.3 yards a game. They’ll be spelled by sophomore Naquan Jones and fifth-year senior Gerald Owens in the middle as the foursome will rotate regularly.

The biggest question for the defensive line remains on the edge. The Spartans took a huge leap from just 11 sacks in 2016 to 28 last season, However, that number still needs to increase if MSU expects to make life difficult for opposing offenses. Junior Kenny Willekes had a breakout season with seven sacks but finding another end will be crucial. Sophomore Jacub Panasiuk should get plenty of opportunity while senior Dillon Alexander will be in the mix. Also keep an eye on sophomore Brandon Randle, who has split time at end and outside linebacker.

Offensive line

The Spartans return plenty of experience up front offensively except for one spot, which also happens to be one of the most important. With center Brian Allen off to the NFL, who moves into that spot becomes a hot topic. Odds are that sophomore Matt Allen, Brian’s brother, will get the nod but others like senior David Beedle and junior Tyler Higby can work there, as well.

Beedle has plenty of versatility and will likely start at left guard with sophomore Kevin Jarvis on the right side. Junior Cole Chewins is back at left tackle with sophomore Luke Campbell on the right side. Add in sophomore Jordan Reid, who can play multiple spots, and the Spartans are strong up front. But getting that quick development at center will be vital to the group’s overall success.

Breakout season?

LJ Scott surprised some when he announced minutes after the Holiday Bowl victory that he was returning for this senior season, but there’s no doubt it immediately solidified the Spartans’ ground attack heading into 2018. Scott has led Michigan State in rushing in each of his first three seasons. However, he has yet to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, getting closes in 2016 when he ran for 994 yards.

But with the lack of experience behind him – only sophomore Connor Heyward has carried the ball in a game besides Scott – this could be the season Scott goes from solid back to superstar back. There’s no doubt Mark Dantonio and his staff will work in young players like Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson, but Scott will get the bulk of the carries, giving him the opportunity to stand out.

If he puts up numbers like Le’Veon Bell did in 2012 as the primary back, Scott could establish himself as one of the best runners in the country.

Quarterback depth

There is no question who will be the quarterback for the Spartans as Brian Lewerke enters his junior season in position to push Penn State’s Trace McSorley as the top QB in the Big Ten. After all, he threw for more than 2,500 yards and ran for more than 500 last season while piling up 3,352 total yards, second-most in program history.

The question is: How do things stack up behind Lewerke? He started all 13 games last season but did suffer a broken leg in 2016, meaning developing a suitable backup could be important. The problem for MSU is it doesn’t have another QB on the roster who has taken a snap. Redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi will likely be the No. 2 with incoming freshman Theo Day at No. 3. Getting one or both some work early in non-conference play is something to keep an eye on.

Loaded back end

The Spartans were one of the top defenses in the nation in 2017, ranking seventh in total defense. Much of that is thanks to the linebackers and secondary. Junior Joe Bachie anchors the middle of the linebacking corps with senior Andrew Dowell on one side and plenty of options on the other, including sophomore Antjuan Simmons, junior Tyriq Thompson and sophomore Brandon Randle. Also, senior safety Grayson Miller played linebacker in the spring.

Things are even more stacked in the back end as sophomore Josiah Scott and junior Justin Layne will likely start at corner with junior David Dowell and senior Khari Willis at safety. The depth after that is outstanding as senior Tyson Smith, junior Josh Butler and freshman Kalon Gervin will see time at corner, while safety has plenty of options, including sophomore Dominique Long, senior Matt Morrissey, sophomore Tre Person and freshman Xavier Henderson.

The biggest question here might be finding a spot for everyone, though that’s a good problem for the Spartans to have.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

 

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