In a spring game where all attention was focused on senior quarterback Brian Lewerke’s first live reps since 2018, the offense displayed much more to dissect in its underwhelming 42-26 defeat.
Offensive play calling
If there was an area of concern that demanded the most attention this offseason, it was the offense. Now with Brad Salem at its helm, the unit offered its first impression to the public on Saturday.
“A lot of things we ran were new because it's no-huddle, which, Michigan State offense is primarily 'run, run, run.' But one thing about coach Salem, he's very open,” fifth-year senior receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. said. “He likes to try new things out and he wants to open the offense up to get the ball on the perimeter. But he also is one to stay stern and also run it as well. So, I feel like it's the best of both worlds.”
Stewart himself was fantastic, producing big-chunk plays when called upon and hauling in two of the game’s three scores, but there was also much to refute Stewart’s suggestion.
Aside from the departures of L.J. Scott and Felton Davis, the Spartans retained much of their offensive depth, much like they did the year before.
And though junior cornerback Josiah Scott explained the style of play from each side of the ball as “just showing basic stuff,” MSU’s inability to effectively move the ball downfield was also fatefully similar to that in 2018.
There were, however, a few sources of optimism that 2019’s offense will not continue to follow its recent downward trend.
Speed to the edge
Sophomore receiver Jalen Nailor, coming off a nagging injury after his breakout game against Indiana, reminded fans of his quickness as he impressed in the slot.
Sophomore running back La’Darius Jefferson carried the offense to the red zone to set up its first touchdown, and junior Connor Heyward turned a dump-off in the backfield into a 50-yard score.
But the playmaker of intrigue was one MSU coach Mark Dantonio compares to Jeremy Langford: early enrollee tailback Anthony Williams.
The young back began to validate those comparisons Saturday, giving MSU a burst out of the backfield that it’s lacked since the graduation of the aforementioned Spartan great.
He continued to get to the edge and catch screens out of the backfield, but he flashed his potential to live up to his comparison by making men miss, most notably spinning to eliminate junior cornerback Dominique Long from the play.
Williams’ skills fit MSU’s scheme, as coaches and players alike noted the offense’s effort to get the ball to the outside.
“Anthony is a fast kid,” senior linebacker Tyriq Thompson said. “He came in and was explosive from the jump. So being able to get him out on the perimeter and things of that nature, he's real shifty and going to help us out a lot on offense.”
The performance by all three backs perhaps gives Dantonio more discretion at the position than he’s had in recent years.
“I think one of the things that we want to look at is who we're going to get the ball to 200 times,” Dantonio said. “Who is that person? And I keep asking that question as I go.”
The veteran quarterback publicly alleviated concerns of his arm strength. He remained in sync with Stewart on a big gain and the ensuing touchdown, and his only major blemish was an interception arguably by the hands of Brandon Sowards.
“(Stewart) came in with me and I've been working with him for five years now,” Lewerke said. “So, to get that connection again in a game-like situation, he made some great catches and he got open. I've just got to get him the ball.”
So now the concern diverts to what was perhaps the underlying issue of his 2018 regression: his mental strength.
“His arm strength is good. It doesn't mean it's going to be on the money all the time, but his arm strength is good,” Dantonio said. “He looks healthy and I hope his confidence is there. That's what I plan on, and it seems to be, based on how he performed today. But quarterback is such a inspiring position. You need to inspire people. ... and your body language has to say so. So I think he'll be ready to go.”