Tuesday, September 22, 2020

PREVIEW: 2019 Michigan State football looks to improve

August 28, 2019

On Aug. 30, college football will return to Spartan Stadium when Michigan State takes on Tulsa under the lights at 7 p.m. Mark Dantonio, in his 13th season as head coach for the Spartans, aims to lead his team back to Indianapolis after a disappointing end last season with a 7-6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl. 

The biggest news this offseason has been the complete restructuring of the offensive staff headed into the 2019 season, with Brad Salem taking over the offensive coordinator position from Dave Warner, among other shifts. There’s a lot to unpack and a lot to be discovered, but here’s what you can expect from Michigan State football in 2019.

Last season, the offensive production was poor and ranked among the bottom of all Division I teams. Only four teams put up fewer points per game. No single factor was to blame for the offensive woes, but two stood out among the rest. 

First, the team was plagued with injuries to the point of where, for a moment in time, the Spartans reached for a fourth-string punter. That’s something that can’t be predicted. The second leading factor was questionable play calling by the offensive staff.

Because of the total reconstructing on the offensive side of the ball, we should expect to see some new plays and a refreshed offensive direction. What that direction is could be hard to tell for now. During the Redbox Bowl and spring game, the Spartans came out often in the pistol formation, and incorporated some no-huddle offense to boot. While they struggled in the Redbox Bowl, the offense showed positive signs during the spring game. Expect to see similar ideas used in 2019’s offense, but at the same time, don’t expect anything radical, such as a spread no-huddle.Quarterback Brian Lewerke was hurt after the Penn State game, and never returned to full strength until the Redbox Bowl. While he was out, Rocky Lombardi filled in and in his first start, threw for 318 yards, but was inconsistent the rest of the season. 

Lewerke is likely to get the start. People easily forgot about his breakthrough year in 2017, throwing for over 2,500 yards and rushing for over 500 for the first time in MSU history. The offense had a plethora of injuries, particularly in the wide receivers and offensive line. The latter should improve so long as injuries stay away.

The wide receivers have a great set returning. Cody White and Darrell Stewart each had more than 500 yards last season, and Cam Chambers and Brandon Sowards each had more than 200. Jalen Nailor, a high school track champion, adds a flexible option and a burst of speed to the already deep lineup and will likely get more touches next season.

Running backs Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson will share time running the ball. Heyward saw most of the snaps behind L.J. Scott, who left for the NFL this offseason. Jefferson impressed in the spring game, so there could be competition for the starting position.

On the other side of the ball, the Spartans return one of the nation’s most dominant defenses. MSU led the country in rushing defense, allowing just 77.9 yards per game on the ground. The next two leading teams allowed just over 95, and the fourth 105. Expect that dominance to continue, as MSU returns every front seven starter except linebacker Andrew Dowell. 

MSU’s defensive line has the talent to be the best in the country. Raequan Williams, Kenny Willekes and Jacub and Mike Panasiuk combined for over 40 tackles-for-loss last season and 14 sacks. Willekes was a first team All-American by The Athletic, and led the conference with 20.5 tackles for loss.

The linebackers will be just as strong, returning two of three starters in Joe Bachie and Tyriq Thompson. Make no mistake, the Spartans will miss Dowell’s production — he gave them 97 tackles last season. 

For the rushing defense to be tops in the country again, either Antjuan Simmons or Brandon Bouyer-Randle will have to make up that production. Expect Simmons to take over the start, and look for Bouyer-Randle to continue his role as a third-down, pass rushing specialist. 

The secondary loses two starters but returns the other half. Corner Josiah Scott, a junior who missed much of last season, has shown potential to be the next great corner at MSU, following the footsteps of Darqueze Denard and Trae Waynes. Safety David Dowell returns after earning third-team all-conference in 2018. In 2017, he was first-team and will look to return to that status. The Spartans have five candidates, Xavier Henderson, Tre Person, Josh Butler, Dominique Long and Shakur Brown, who will compete for the remaining two spots. Each had playing time last season and have recorded multiple sacks, ensuring depth in the backfield. 

MSU was ranked 62nd in pass defense last season, but was improving towards the latter half. Provided the production leaving from last season can be sufficiently filled, paired with the pass-rush from the front seven, this season’s defense could be among the best in the Dantonio era.

Special teams should be in solid hands, as well. Punter Jake Hartbarger, who was out most of last season, returns for a sixth year of eligibility. He has shown ability to pin the ball deep in enemy territory, a valuable tool in any team. Placekicker Matt Coghlin returns as well after being named a Lou Groza semifinalist and earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He was 18-22 from the field last year, including 4-5 from 40 to 49 yards.

Next season is pivotal for the Spartans. It represents a real chance to get back to Indianapolis, but could also end in disappointment if the offense fails to improve. 

Some criticized Dantonio for not adding or removing anybody new to the staff, and if the offense fails to improve, those criticisms will undoubtedly echo louder. However, should the offense show improvement, paired with a defense that will keep the team in every game, double digit wins should not be out of the question. However, that’s only if the offense proves to be productive. If they can score just 24 points a game, the defense has shown to consistently hold opponents under that mark. If they don’t, it will likely be a repeat of last year, and MSU could fight its way to six wins.

To be an optimist, I’ll expect the former scenario, and the Spartans to finish 10-2 with a trip to Indianapolis.

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