Spartans keep 'newer age offense' under wraps — for now
East Lansing — The annual Green and White game on Saturday was the last chance for fans to see Michigan State football until late August, but it didn’t signify the end of spring workouts for the Spartans.
Mark Dantonio’s team will hold its final practice Tuesday — teams are allowed 15 dates for practices and scrimmages — and get a chance to digest what took place at Spartan Stadium over the weekend. It doesn’t happen every year, but the Spartans are hoping to take advantage of the schedule.
“We have an opportunity as much as anything to watch this film and put an evaluation process,” Dantonio said. “So many times in the past, the spring game comes, boom you're out, you leave recruiting, you don't get the chance to evaluate it and sit down and watch it with your team and your players; It's just sort of on to the next thing.
“We're taking this opportunity to continue spring practice so as much as anything we can evaluate the film and look forward to next practice and just leave it. Leave that practice moving forward. It will be important and good to keep pushing.”
The evaluation will likely include plenty of focus on the offense. That’s not ground-breaking news considering Michigan State is coming off a 7-6 season in 2018 when the defense was among the best in the nation but didn’t get much help from an offense that averaged just more than 18 points a game.
That led to changes in the coaching staff that included Brad Salem moving from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and running backs coach with former coordinator Dave Warner taking over the quarterbacks, a role he had before his promotion in 2013.
How much those moves will affect the offense remains to be seen as the Spartans held back on Saturday, not anxious to unveil much about the changes Salem has made.
“Coach Salem didn't really want to show too much,” junior running back Connor Heyward said. “It's the spring game, you know, some schools are going to look at it, but you've just got to keep to basics — outside zone, inside zone, power, a couple down-field throws. You don't want to show everything. We have some new stuff, but most stuff you've got to mix the new with the old.”
What Michigan State did do offensively, according to fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke, was more “day-one and day-two install,” and it didn’t go beyond that. Instead, fans will have to wait to see what Lewerke and the rest of the offense have been working on this spring.
“Coach Salem has more of a newer age offense, and that definitely shows through his play calling,” Lewerke said. “Reads, RPO’s, that type of stuff. We tried to keep it pretty basic. Obviously when we were down, Coach Salem wanted to call more. Coach D kind of held him back.”
It’s the same way the defense saw things.
“Seeing throughout the spring, they didn’t show much at all,” junior cornerback Josiah Scott said. “They have a bunch of stuff in that they didn’t show today.”
There were definitely some encouraging signs as Lewerke looked healthy, throwing the ball with velocity and accuracy, while the starting receivers — senior Darrell Stewart Jr., junior Cody White and sophomore Jalen Nailor — all played well and are expected to have big years if they remain healthy.
The offensive line was OK with health, again, being a major factor, but the one position that will have the attention of plenty of folks come preseason camp is running back.
With LJ Scott off to the NFL after an injury-plagued 2018, there is opportunity in the backfield.
“I think that's a work in progress to be quite honest with you,” Dantonio said. “They've had good moments and we've run the ball more effectively this spring.”
Heyward is the clear leader of the group after being the Spartans’ top rusher last season. He had only seven carries for 24 yards on Saturday but had a 50-yard screen pass he took for a touchdown. He and sophomore La’Darius Jefferson bring the most experience, but redshirt freshman Elijah Collins and freshman Anthony Williams Jr. showed flashes on Saturday and sophomore Weston Bridges is still in the mix.
And while some things in the running game might look similar, they are, in fact, different than what Michigan State is used to running.
“Opening people up, and not doing straight power with two tight ends and running back,” Lewerke said. “Doing more one-back power, inside zone, outside zone stuff. I think it’s helped us a lot.”
How Michigan State fared in that category will be looked at during the final practice on Tuesday, as will many other things, just like teams do during the regular season. That will help, the Spartans believe, and by the time they’re back for preseason camp, they’ll have a clear idea on what they need to improve.
“We’ve got one more day of practice so spring ball is not over with,” Stewart said. “So, I’m ready to get back in the lab and work on some things.”