This past offseason for the Spartans has not been as tranquil as others — under head coach Mark Dantonio’s previous 12 — after the Spartans finished an injury-plagued season with a 7-6 record.
After the 7-6 loss in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31, Dantonio decided a need for change in the coaching staff. The most notable change was replacing former offensive coordinator Dave Warner with running back coach Brad Salem.
“I think offenses today are predicated upon what you see is really what you’ll get, in terms of, if you see a particular defense, you’re going to (do) certain things," Dantonio said during Michigan State’s media day on Aug. 5 about the direction Salem is trying to steer the offense toward. “A lot of it (success) is predicted on what you see, whether it’s coverage or front related or blitzes … those things have always been opportunities for our quarterbacks to get out of bad plays.”
Dantonio also said that, after four days of fall camp, his coaching staff is still trying to level the slight favor the defense has over the offense in terms of the line.
MSU struggled last year to remain consistent with five starters on the offensive line because of injury. With an experienced offensive line returning, Dantonio said they're still looking for the perfect combination.
“Tyler Higby is making steps to get back involved. He’s still not back all the way, but I think he will be shortly,” Dantonio said about the senior guard who played left tackle, left guard and center last season. “We want to find the best five, get them involved, get them situated and then beyond that, there’s three or four other guys that have played ... they’re taking steps.”
Besides the lack of offensive productivity, the tight end position was also in question during media day.
The Spartans lost veteran tight end Matt Sokol in the offseason after he signed with the Los Angeles Rams as a free agent, establishing junior Matt Dotson as this season’s starter.
Last season, Dotson lead the tight ends with 14 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown, playing in all 13 games. With the changes imposed by Dantonio, Dotson sees a bright future in place for production on his part.
“We have a new coach, coach (Mark) Staten, he’s going back to his expertise,” Dotson said about Staten’s switch from the head of the offensive line to the tight end coach. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a lot of new energy … it’s the same guys, so this group’s been getting a lot of bonding, becoming closer and closer and understanding more of what we need to do.”
Dantonio also hinted at an adjustment in the play, calling for the offensive side, but would not further elaborate on his basic “we’re not going to expand on that right now … you’ve got to leave something in the bag.”
Despite avoiding the obvious questions about the play calling, Dantonio is confident when it comes to the area of special teams.
“I’ve been impressed with both guys (senior punter Jake Hartbarger and junior kicker Matt Coghlin). It looks like we should be good at those positions,” Dantonio said. “Those guys have experience. They’re as good as there is in the conference.”
The key to a successful offense is a strong quarterback to lead both on and off of the field, and senior Brian Lewerke is looking to bounce back after an unimpressive junior season.
Lewerke was just one of many players that suffered from injuries last season, but to him, the shoulder injury was just more adversity he had to overcome.
During the offseason, both players traveled to San Diego to attend a camp intended for quarterbacks, but was more focused on military training and leadership qualities.
“After we weren’t able to throw the ball around as much, I think that became the main focus,” Lewerke said about his and Lombardi’s battle to remain healthy last season. “(To) learn as much as you can about leadership and try to take some of the stuff they have and take it back to the team.”
Dantonio feels confident in both Lewerke and Lombardi’s abilities going into week two of camp and is ready to ‘Chase the Moment’.