Niyo: Michigan State's O-line center of preseason focus

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State lineman Tyler Higby (70) is moving from guard to center this season.

East Lansing — Life was less complicated last season for Michigan State’s offense, if only because Brian Allen had all the answers.

So for Brian Lewerke, the Spartans’ quarterback, there’s no question this could be something new, wondering if his center is seeing things clearly, doubting whether the guy in front of him has it right.

Then again, it’ll also be old hat, not that he’s expecting it to happen. Because the man in the middle of the Spartans’ offensive line, at least for the moment, is Tyler Higby.

“And I’ve been roommates with him for four years, so I know him very well,” Lewerke said, laughing after a preseason practice this week. “We have our arguments a lot.”

So, yes, this new arrangement for Michigan State’s offense will be “interesting,” at least in that respect. Especially since by Lewerke’s own estimate, resolving disagreements with his roommate is a bit of a toss-up.

“It’s 50-50,” he said, when asked who usually wins the argument. “But it’s good fun. It’s nothing serious.”

Maybe so. But all joking aside, there are some serious shoes to fill up front for Michigan State, where Allen, a three-year starter and team captain a year ago, no longer anchors the offensive line. He’s in training camp with the Los Angeles Rams this summer, while his younger brother, Matt, a redshirt sophomore, battles Higby for the starting job at center.

Learning the hard way

Matt Allen, whose eldest sibling, Jack, was an All-American center for the Spartans in 2015, looked like the heir apparent to win the starting job coming out of spring practice, continuing a family tradition. But head coach Mark Dantonio suggested otherwise following the Spartans’ first instrasquad scrimmage last week.

“Right now, Tyler’s the No. 1 center,” he said Tuesday. “But Matt’s gonna play. He’s a young player, and he continues to improve. He’s very capable. We’ll see how it all shakes out.”

Until it does, likely after another scrimmage or two, there are concerns the Spartans won’t be able to shake. Because so many of the hopes for a talented Michigan State offense — from LJ Scott’s role as a featured back to Lewerke’s health — rest on the shoulders of a position group that’s still relatively inexperienced.

“Only one year under a lot of their belts,” said Mark Staten, Michigan State’s offensive line coach. “But that one year has helped.”

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Indeed, the group learned some valuable lessons last season while it took its lumps. Michigan State finished 62nd nationally in rushing yardage last season, but the Spartans averaged less than four yards per carry — only Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana could say the same in the Big Ten — and ranked in the bottom quartile in a variety of line-specific metrics, per Football Outsiders.

Ask Luke Campbell, who started 12 games at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, what he learned in 2017 and he’ll tell you “there’s 100 things that I can do better.” That might not be much of an exaggeration, either.

“I think last year starting the season we questioned what we could do,” he said. “This year, we know what we can do. And we can do a lot of special things.”

That remains to be seen, but the encouraging news is that the bulk of that line returns, with guards David Beedle (senior) and Kevin Jarvis (sophomore) flanked by tackles Cole Chewins and Campbell — a group that had just eight combined starts prior to last season.

Works in progress

There’s depth at tackle with sophomore Jordan Reid and redshirt freshman Mustafa Khaleefah, and Dantonio singled out redshirt freshman Blake Bueter — a former walk-on like Chewins — as a surprise standout in camp.

Higby, meanwhile, played in 23 games the last two seasons, including 13 starts. But those came at left guard, and the former prep tackle didn’t start taking snaps in practice until late last season. He spent the spring and summer with his head down working on shotgun snaps, too.

Now he’s being asked to keep his head on a swivel, directing traffic at the center spot with the line calls, while recognizing the importance of hand placement at the center spot. There’s no off-hand when you’re in the middle, and “getting that engaged quickly, getting that engaged right away” is a work in progress, Staten said.

As for the role itself, Higby “has definitely accepted it,” Lewerke said, “and I think he’ll be able to perform at a high level at it.”

The coaches feel the same way about Allen once he gets more comfortable at the point of attack and learns to “not overthink it,” Staten said. “That’s a big thing with him, a lot like Jack was early on.”

Even in the dog days of camp, you can tell that’s a point Staten, tight ends coach Jim Bollman and grad assistant Blake Treadwell are busy trying to drive home. The linemen know where they’re supposed to be. But getting there together with the right techniques — and consistently — is the next step, and that’s a process you can hear almost as well as you can see.

The offense struggled, as expected, in the first scrimmage last week, and Lewerke agrees the lines of communication are still a bit too quiet in front of him.

“And it’s not just them,” Lewerke said. “It’s probably me, too. I could talk to them more, they could talk to me. … Once that happens, that’s when we’ll start clicking.”

How long that’ll take is hard to say. But when Lewerke says “better sooner than later,” he’ll get no argument from anyone.