East Lansing — Replacing starters is not a big deal this season for Michigan State.
It’s been stated over and over — and used as evidence that the Spartans could be one of the top teams in the nation — that only three starters are gone from last season’s team that went 10-3 and finished second in the Big Ten East.
So it should be no surprise that one of those spots, the strong-side outside linebacker position the Spartans refer to as the “money linebacker” that was manned the last few years by Chris Frey, is getting plenty of attention. And fortunately for coach Mark Dantonio, there are plenty of options, considering the Spartans are as deep as any at linebacker.
“That’s just going to work itself out; we’ve got guys that we can play,” Dantonio said. “We can go three deep, three or four deep, at that position. So it’s been a positive.”
While junior Joe Bachie is the team’s mainstay and most valuable player in the middle, and senior Andrew Dowell has started 16 straight games on the weak side, there is plenty to figure out when it comes to determining the third starter.
In fact, the only certainty it seems is the Spartans will be running plenty of players in and out of the game. Junior Tyriq Thompson and sophomore Brandon Randle were getting most of the work this spring, but fifth-year senior Byron Bullough — the backup in the middle for Bachie — and sixth-year senior Jon Reschke are now in the mix, as well.
And it appears, less than two weeks into preseason camp, it’s hard to determine who has the upper hand.
“If one of them was having a bad camp, I’d be able to tell you who was doing good right now,” Bachie said, “but all (four) of them are playing really well. They all have their strong suits and they’re all smart, so they can talk the game and also play the game.
“Byron is a good sideline-to-sideline runner. Tyriq fills a gap better than anyone and Jon has got a little bit of both. (Randle’s) athleticism can put him out of the box, it can put him in the box, he can play D-end if he has to, and he’s obviously one of our third-down rushers. He’s got the tools to do it all.”
Thompson had 11 tackles last season backing up Frey. Getting a shot to start this season is high on his list, but he understands the competition.
“In a perfect world, it would be ideal,” Thompson said. “But we got a lot of depth at linebacker right now, a lot of good depth.
“We’re all just working and competing and getting each other better every day. If I’m playing good, that’s gonna make Brandon better. If Brandon’s playing good, that’s gonna make Jon better. So, we’re getting better every day.”
Randle was used primarily last season at defensive end and could still see the bulk of his work in pass-rushing situations. He got to the quarterback just once, but he thinks his redshirt freshman season playing a new position can only benefit him now.
“It helped me use my hands better,” Randle said, “and it helped me with experience. I feel like I’m gonna get to the quarterback a lot this year.”
While Bullough is the solid No. 2 behind Bachie, where Reschke fits in is tougher to determine.
“Well, he’s been out of football for a year,” Dantonio said, “but I think he’s healthy and he can play any of those three positions. He’s sort of worked a little bit at all of them.”
In his last full season, Reschke had 75 tackles while starting all 14 games in 2015 for a team that reached the College Football Playoff.
Could he become that type of player again, despite playing just two games in 2016 before sitting out 2017?
“I wouldn’t be surprised a bit,” Bachie said. “He’s getting better and better every day. … He’s still quick, still explosive.”
It seems clear at this point the Spartans won’t rely on just one player. Instead, expect to see plenty of linebackers making contributions.
“We are really a close-knit group and we like to have fun when we get out there, but we have depth so we will have a lot of guys playing this year,” Bullough said. “We have leaders coming back, playmakers coming back. The sky’s the limit for this team, and we are just trying to get the season rolling.”