Football's spring game preview: Players, position battles to watch
MSU football is back.
This Saturday at 5 p.m. is MSU’s third annual Green-White spring game, and Spartan fans’ first opportunity to the 2018 team.
The format of the game is offense vs. defense, with scoring based on whether the offense scores or not, which is different from the team draft format two years ago.
“I think we get more out of it from a team standpoint when we look at film and build on the things there,” head coach Mark Dantonio said before practice Tuesday. “So we’ll play it in that confined type of way we did last year. But I think it’ll be competitive and I think last year it went down to the kick maybe. So I think it’s exciting for everybody.”
There was little turnover this offseason with 14 seniors graduated — only three of them starters.
However, there are starting holes that need to be filled. And Saturday will be the first opportunity to see players attempt to fill those holes, along with other position changes and battles.
The State News breaks down each position going into the spring game, with one or two players their peers and coaches have talked about during spring practices.
Offensive Line: Matt Allen, Bryce Wilker, Tommy Liesveld, Jack Henrichs
Player to watch: Matt Allen
With his older brother and former Spartan Brian Allen graduated from the team, Matt Allen will look to fight for his position at center.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore played a total of 48 snaps in 11 games last season and earned his first letter. In his Spartan debut against Bowling Green in the 2017 season home opener, he made a total of 25 snaps.
Assistant head coach/offensive line coach Mark Staten currently looks toward him and two other players to fill in the key position.
“You add Matt Allen to the mix, who has had a great camp,” Staten said. “He’s fighting off some stiff competition from Tyler Higby, who is also playing a lot of center, and Jordan Reid, who is doing a really good job at center.”
Offensive guards: Matt Carrick, David Beedle, Kevin Jarvis, Tyler Higby
Player to watch: Tyler Higby
Going into his junior year, the left guard has played in a total of 22 games in his Spartan career.
Last season, he ranked third on the offensive line with nine dominators and tied for third with 37.5 knockdowns. He has played 743 snaps, fourth most among Spartan offensive linemen and sixth most overall on offense.
Not only does Higby play offensive guard, but he has been playing different positions as well, including center and tackle.
“I’ve been putting Higby out on some tackle, and that’s an interesting scenario,” Staten said.
Offensive Tackle: Jordan Reid, Cole Chewins, Luke Campbell, Noah Listermann, Blake Bueter, AJ Arcuri, Dimitri Douglas, Mustafa Khaleefah
Players to watch: Cole Chewins, Blake Bueter, Mustafa Khaleefah
Out of the three players, Chewins started the past two seasons at left tackle while Bueter and Khaleefah were redshirted.
Staten said Chewins will be a player who can change positions to mix things up throughout the game.
“He’s going to be a force for us in a couple of years, and fortunately he can go left or right,” Staten said. “That’s the nice thing about him, so if he needs to go to left side, the right side, he will do whatever we ask him to do, and I’m excited about this season coming up.”
As for Bueter and Khaleefah, they are starting to step up to look for a spot on the team.
Staten will continue to see how they perform during the spring game as well as practices throughout the summer to watch their progress.
“Guys that you’ll see who are doing good things and are starting to step up, you’ll see (Khaleefah) doing some good things, you’ll see Bueter doing some good things,” Staten said.
Quarterbacks: Theo Day, Rocky Lombardi, Mickey Macius, Brian Lewerke
Player to watch: Theo Day, Rocky Lombardi
Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke will remain the starter for the 2018 season, but two freshmen look to back him up.
Head coach Mark Dantonio will likely look to Day as he continues to earn more reps throughout the spring practices.
“It’s interesting to watch the guys who haven’t repped as much, so Rocky Lombardi getting a lot of reps, as well as Theo Day,” Dantonio said. “A little bit of a learning process, but he has a lot of talent."
Co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Dave Warner mentioned that redshirt freshman Lombardi knows the offense well, but the spring game will make a difference.
Putting him in to execute plays and see how he reacts in the moment are major things to watch for Warner.
“He knows the offense inside and out, but that’s one thing,” Warner said. “Actually getting in the huddle and going behind the center and executing it is another.”
Running backs: LJ Scott, Connor Heyward, Weston Bridges, Noah Sargent, Alante Thomas
Player to watch: Connor Heyward
The sophomore led the team with 20 kick returns for 436 kick return yards, which ranks third in the Big Ten in kickoff return average.
Heyward made his debut for the Spartans against Western Michigan.
Warner said he knows he can step up as the second running back for the team since he can do different things to help the team.
“He’s done well,” Warner said. “He has picked things up well. He’s extremely versatille. He can run some tailback and he can motion out and do some slot receiver for us. We see him as being the guy who can do a lot of different things for us.”
Wide receivers: Cody White, Nick Krumm, Laress Nelson, Brandon Sowards, Felton Davis III, Julian Major, Davis Lewandowski, Cam Chambers, Darrell Stewart Jr., Javez Alexander, Khylin Barton, Jahz Watts, Andre Welch
Player to watch: Cody White, Cam Chambers
The two sophomores will come back for the 2018 season as starters to backup Felton Davis III.
Cody White was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and set an MSU true freshman record for most receiving yards in a single season with 490, while the 35 catches were second most by a true freshman
White stands out for Warner because he can go from position position.
“He’s probably similar to Connor Heyward,” Warner said. “He has played a lot of positions in high school and he can play a lot for us.”
After joining the Spartans in January 2016, Chambers played in all 13 games last season and had five catches for 66 yards.
Wide receivers coach Terrance Samuels said Chambers has grown as a player after being on the team for two seasons.
“He’s grown immensely, but like I said it’s always when that light comes on for me for players,” Samuel said. “Some guys it happens early, some guys it happens a little bit later. He’s in the position where he is making a lot of plays, and it’s fun watching him grow and that confidence is just starting to ooze out.”
Tight ends: C.J. Hayes, Matt Seybert, Matt Sokol, Noah Davis, Matt Dotson, Chase Gianacakos
Player to watch: Matt Dotson, Matt Sokol
Entering his fifth season with the team, senior Sokol played in 39 career games with 11 starts.
The 6-foot-6 senior stands as a leader for the younger guys on the team, co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Jim Bollman said. He said he feels Sokol has stepped up to help guide the rookies on how to improve.
“He’s been very good,” Bollman said. “It’s easy for me to say that because I’m with him every day … but he’s done a really good job of trying to exercise that role, for a lack of better word.”
Matt Dotson sticks out to Warner after his second season with the team.
Last season, he played 74 snaps and had two catches for 19 yards.
“He has played for us a little bit last year and we have high expectations for him,” Warner said. “Maybe it’s not a surprise as much as it is as him getting an opportunity now, and he is taking advantage of it. He’s done some good things for us.”
Defensive ends: Kenny Willekes, Jacub Panasiuk, Justice Alexander, Dillon Alexander, Jack Camper, DeAri Todd
Player to watch: Justice Alexander
The 6-foot-5, 257-pound junior has not only caught the eye of his new defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough, but also from his head coach, even drawing comparisons to former Spartan and current Houston Texan Joel Heath.
“He’s finally starting to play fast and you see some good things from him,” Dantonio said. “He is getting bigger and stronger and those type of things.”
Alexander played one game last year, totaling two tackles against Bowling Green.
He’ll most likely have an opportunity to at least compete for playing time on the opposite end of Willekes, competing with Dillon Alexander, who played 11 games and started four last season and Panasiuk, who played in all 13 games.
Defensive tackles: Mike Panasiuk, Raequan Williams, Naquan Jones, Mufi Hill-Hunt
Player to watch: Mike Panasiuk
The elder of the two Panasiuk’s, Mike earned an All-Big Ten honorable mention from the media after he collected 25 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss.
But according to defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Mike Tressel, he could “be the MVP of the spring.”
“He was a very good player last year, but dominates at times this year,” Tressel said after practice Tuesday.
Defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said Panasiuk’s leadership is improving, along with his pass rush and being more technically sound.
“He’s a lean 300-pounder, and really starting to use his feet and his hands more in the pass rush, which is things he needs to work on and get better at. And that’s what it’s all about,” Burton said.
Burton said all four of this defensive tackles have made strides this spring after getting decent experience last season.
“They’ve been able to adjust and gain more knowledge in the defense as far as the overall picture of everyone else playing around them,” Burton said. “So knowing more than just their position, knowing more than just the defensive line. And more importantly what the linebackers are doing. So a complete concept of the defense is where are improvements are coming from.”
Linebackers: Joe Bachie, Andrew Dowell, Byron Bullough, Tyriq Thompson, Brandon Randle, Noah Harvey, Antjuan Simmons, Dante Razzano, Tanner Hallock, Brent Mossburg, Mitchell Sokol and Edward Warinner.
Players to watch: Tyriq Thompson, Brandon Randle, Byron Bullough, Grayson Miller
There were only three starters who graduated this past fall. One of them was captain Chris Frey.
Frey’s departure leaves a hole at the strong-side linebacker, with Thompson and Randle having a “big time competition” in spring ball, with Harvey in the mix as well.
“They both bring different qualities to the table: Randle is more of a slippery, blitz, bend the edge guy. Tyriq’s more of a thumper, more experienced, and probably a little more football knowledge at the linebacker position,” Tressel said. “But those are the two competing at that spot.”
Tressel said Bullough has mostly been practicing at middle linebacker — where Bachie started last season — and has been impressed about how he’s getting off of blocks.
“He was always smart enough to recognize formations and read his keys, but once he engaged those 300-pound linemen, he did a great job of getting off blocks and using his hands,” Tressel said. “He’s done a great job of finishing plays. Last scrimmage, he probably had double-digit tackles and that’s because of his ability to get off blocks.”
Before this spring, Miller lined up at strong safety. Now, he’s taking reps as a linebacker.
“(Miller) told me he’d rather bang his head against a 300-pound man than have to run with 4.4 guy in the vertical,” Tressel said. “So he’s all in and doing a good job.”
Defensive backs: Khari Willis, Josiah Scott, David Dowell, Justin Layne, Josh Butler, Dominique Long, Xavier Henderson, Kalon Gervin, Matt Morrissey, Tyson Smith, Tre Person, Emmanuel Flowers, Shakur Brown, Jiah Norman, Corey Pryor, Austin Andrews and Jack Mandryk
Player to watch: Xavier Henderson
Other than the transfer of Jalen Watts-Jackson and Miller’s transition, the entire secondary from 2017 is back.
“I feel really good that we got nine or 10 guys that can sit there and play for us,” defensive backs coach Paul Haynes said after a March 27 practice. “That’s the one good thing about my room. … It doesn’t matter who’s out there, those guys are just playing.”
And one of those players is Henderson, who early enrolled this spring to get a headstart for the 2018 season.
The freshman is currently playing with the starting defense as the nickel cornerback, and is impressing all of his coaches and peers.
“Xavier has been awesome,” Haynes said. “Very athletic, can play man-to-man. And again, we’re just throwing him in the fire, just throwing him in the fire and covering big-time wideouts. And he’s getting better.”
Read more about this year’s secondary here.
Kickers: Matt Coghlin, Cole Hahn and Tyler Hunt
Player to watch: Cole Hahn
Coghlin entered a Nov. 4 matchup with then-No. 7 Penn State after going 1-for-3 against Northwestern.
Then, in the rain and after a near three and a half hour delay against the Nittany Lions, he hit the game-tying and game-winning field goals to upset Penn State.
But Dantonio said the kicker position is open for competition between Coghlin, Hahn and Hunt.
“We need a guy to take over that position,” Dantonio said.