MSU head coach Mark Dantonio praises his football team's leadership, chemistry and deep talent. Dale G. Young, The Detroit News
East Lansing — By their heightened standards under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans were pretty good last season, 10-3, ranked 15th. By his standards, LJ Scott was pretty good too, the leading rusher for a third straight season, despite injuries and other missteps.
This is the new message, emphatically stated, from the team and the running back: Pretty good isn’t good enough.
Not this season, with 19 starters returning and a schedule with most of the toughest games at home. Not after what we saw a year ago, when a young Michigan State team picked itself up, and as Dantonio said Monday, “reaffirmed ourselves as a football program.”
The Spartans are a Big Ten contender again, a consensus top-15 pick again, the type of Dantonio team the opposition hates to see – stacked defense with depth and experience, dynamic quarterback, loads of talented receivers.
Oh, and only one proven running back. This is why Scott is back, surprising many when he opted to return for his senior season. He saw how good the Spartans could be, and how much better he needed to be, and how he could fill an important hole, with only sophomore Connor Heyward and freshmen in the backfield.
Scott will have to improve his vision and his speed, and cut out the fumbles, if he wants to be an NFL back. The best thing is, he showed the maturity to admit it.
“I’ve already seen more of a focused LJ, starting with ball protection,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “He came back because he didn’t play as well as he felt he could, and he also knew he was gonna be the guy. When you go into your senior year, all of a sudden the light comes on, and you realize, wow, this is it, I better buckle down even more. I think he’s done that.”
At Michigan State’s Media Day, Scott answered questions with a pleasant, self-assured ease. He rushed for 898 yards last season, with a career-low 4.5 per carry. Some of that was because of an untested offensive line, and some was splitting carries with Madre London and Gerald Holmes, both now gone.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke also emerged as a dual threat, running for 559 yards. Lewerke is the key to the season, of course, because the Spartans don’t have a backup who has taken a single snap. The offensive line is always a key, but with four starters back, the building blocks are there.
Scott is a big-bodied talent (6-1, 225) who mans a position with little depth. For instance, Dantonio announced another Scott — starting cornerback Josiah — would miss a couple months with an undisclosed injury. The Spartans are so deep in the secondary, they can adjust.
For a team that likes to pound on the ground, a thin backfield would be problematic.
“When he decided to come back right after the bowl game, I thought it was a big statement for our program,” Dantonio said. “It's like getting a recruit when you know he's going to be your quarterback or your tailback, much like Connor Cook when he came back.”
And how’s this for a twist? The flaw that fans found maddening — Scott lost four fumbles last season — is one of the reasons he came back.
“Individually, I didn’t feel I was performing to the best of my ability, and then collectively as a team, it was the chemistry, it was everyone coming back,” Scott said. “And honestly, (the fumbles) were a reason. It’s out of my mind now, but it never was in my mind, because that’s something I just don’t do. Things happen. I’ll make sure in 2018 there won’t be those same mistakes.”
A year ago, the Spartans were trying to figure out how they lost their way during the 3-9 disaster. Now, they’ll gladly explain how they found their way back, and how they’re prepared to take another step up.
Starting with Dantonio, they talk about chemistry so much, they should wear white lab coats. But this is a team that believes it and shows it. Dantonio mixes unheralded recruits with a few big-time guys, so the formula has to be right for it to work.
“The confidence is very high,” Lewerke said. “There’s nothing we feel like we can’t do. I think every position on our team is a strength for us. A team goes by how good their front seven is, on offense and defense. As good as our offensive line will be, that’s how good our offense will be. And I think they’re gonna be great.”
They need to be better, because for all the rightful satisfaction in last season’s turnaround, the Spartans will have to score more to duplicate it. They averaged only 24.5 points, and won five games by a touchdown or less.
Their top receivers, led by Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart, are back. Their quarterback is a year older. And their running back is determined to keep maturing.
Scott infamously was cited seven times in one year for driving with a suspended license, minor infractions that looked sloppy.
“It was a life lesson,” Scott said. “I don’t regret it, because you’re gonna have to go through some adversity to know what’s real. I finally got my license back, I’m proud to say.”
A license to jab, too. Scott created a bit of a stir at the Big Ten Media Days when he responded to a “little brother” poke on social media from Michigan’s Devin Bush. Scott retorted by dropping a “little sisters” line on the Wolverines.
Silly? Sure. Out of character for the Spartans, who generally let Michigan play the arrogance card? Yep. Maybe Scott was getting himself fired up already for the Oct. 20, meeting, because he was out with a shoulder injury when Michigan State won last year, 14-10. He heard about it from the coaches, and is toning it down.
“I definitely heard about it, and I’m gonna keep hearing about it,” Scott said. “I said it, but at the end of the day, it’s about the Spartan dawgs. It’s about the team, about what we’re gonna do in 2018.”
This is not one of those under-the-radar Michigan State teams. This is a team with the most returning starters in the country, including one it didn’t expect to have. LJ Scott may have as much to prove as anyone, and even more to gain.