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The Staggering Decline of Michigan State’s Line Play

2016 has been a disaster for the Spartans and play along the lines has been a big reason why. Is there an answer?

NCAA Football: Furman at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

2016 has been an all-around terrible year for Michigan State athletics.

First, non-captain Connor Cook and the football team get steamrolled by Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Then the basketball team loses to Middle Tennessee State as a two seed. Now, this tire fire of a football season.

In case you’ve been lucky enough to be living in a cave during this season, MSU currently sits at 2-4 and hasn’t won a game since mid-September. In their most recent loss they surrendered 54 points to one of the lowest scoring offenses in the Big Ten. Oh, and they still have Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule. The Bowl hopes are slim, at best.

This team has a shocking number of issues but many stem from an inability to rush or protect the passer. In football, that might as well be a death sentence.

So, how the hell did this happen?

Mass Talent Exodus

Big Ten Championship
Shilique Calhoun’s pass rush ability has been sorely missed
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Any time time a program loses one player the caliber of Shilique Calhoun, Jack Conklin or Cook, repercussions are felt up and down the roster — unless you’re Alabama, of course. MSU had to replace all three and unfortunately that was just the tip of the iceberg.

2015 starters Aaron Burbridge, Arjen Colquhoun, Darien Harris and MacGarrett Kings all graduated. That in and of itself is a lot of production to replace but it’s nothing compared to the hit MSU took in the trenches.

Jack Allen, Donavon Clark, Joel Heath, and Lawrence Thomas — all starters a year ago — also graduated, while presumed ‘16 starters Craig Evans and Montez Sweat were dismissed from the team.

On top of that, three other defensive linemen also chose to leave the program — Damon Knox declined a chance to come back for a sixth year while Cassius Peat and Enoch Smith transferred.

11 total linemen — three offensive and eight defensive — gone just like that. Even if you nail every single recruiting class and have a star like Malik McDowell in the fold, that’s a boatload of talent to replace in one offseason. When you whiff on a few recruiting classes, it becomes near impossible.

Recruiting Misses and Injury Issues

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Michigan State
Dantonio has been a very good recruiter but some misses have caught up to him
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Dantonio’s staff has been able to smooth over recruiting lulls in the past but the mass attrition brought to light some crippling misses and devastating injuries along the lines.

2012 and 2013 stand as the main culprits. The Spartans landed 10 total lineman in those classes. Conklin was one of them. Kodi Keiler was another. Two others — Demetrious Cooper and Benny McGowan — have played fringe-starter roles. The final six? Almost nothing.

Two of them — James Bodanis and Noah Jones — have transferred and another two — David Fenell and Zach Higgins — were forced to retire due to injury. The final two — Devyn Salmon and Dennis Finley — have barely seen the field, although hopes are still high that Finley will be starter material once he fully recovers from a nasty broken leg.

The cherry on top? Se’Von Pittman — a top 100 recruit in the 2012 class — who flipped from MSU to Ohio State in December of 2011 after Urban Meyer was announced as Head Coach.

That’s only two bonafide starters from two entire classes. Those classes were supposed to be provide the juniors and seniors to lead the way this season. Instead, bad play and bad luck has forced the staff to play younger players before they are ready and look outside the program for veteran help to patch the holes.

Little Impact From Transfers

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan State
Williams and Sherrod have been let downs thus far
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

When they came aboard, Gabe Sherrod and Kevin Williams looked like solid additions to this year’s defensive line. Each a graduate transfer, they were expected to help bridge the gap to the highly-recruited groups that came to East Lansing in each of the past two classes.

Instead, they have barely been noticed. Williams — who was a reserve at Nebraska behind two third round picks in Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins — has been somewhat effective against the run but has yet to register a tackle for loss. Sherrod has three total tackles on the year and has been all but phased out of the end rotation.

On the other side, Miguel Machado — an offensive tackle transfer in the 2014 class — started the year at right tackle but continues to lose snaps to true freshman Thiyo Lukusa, among others.

These were the players brought in to help cover for ‘12 and ‘13. Not getting adequate production has taken the situation from not ideal to nuclear.

This Is Not The End

Wisconsin v Michigan State
The Chef has been one of the few bright spots along either line
Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

There is a strange feeling amongst the MSU fan base that there has never been before.

It isn’t the “resigned to failure” mood that came with the John L. and Bobby Williams eras. It sure isn’t the “us against the world” feeling that came with the first six years of Dantonio’s tenure. It most certainly isn’t the “Big Ten Champions or bust” mentality that defined the past three seasons.

The feeling at Saturday’s game against Northwestern was one of disbelief. A stadium fill with people asking themselves “what happened to this program?”

The problems are hardly exclusive to the lines — or to the players — but there’s a cliche about winning games in the trenches for a reason. Dantonio built his program by playing pro-style offense and hard-nosed defense. His teams pride themselves on “finding the inches” and doing the little things that make great programs great. Right now, his team is failing in every one of those areas.

One week it’s dumb penalties, the next it’s suspect play calling and coverage break downs, the next it’s a back breaking special teams play. Most weeks, it’s all of the above. You can’t fix talent, but you can fix discipline. That is the starting point for any turnaround. That and letting the very talented group of true and redshirt freshmen linemen cut their teeth and there is no shortage of high profile talent on either side of the ball.

On defense, Raequan Williams has been MSU’s best lineman behind McDowell, Josh King, Mike Panasiuk and Auston Robertson have all played as true freshmen, and Naquan Jones and Kyonta Stallworth both have high ceilings. All of them were four star recruits and are freshman of some variety.

On the flip side, Lukusa was a big time recruit and is already getting snaps as a true freshman, while redshirt frosh Tyler Higby has already claimed a starting spot at left guard. Don’t sleep on Cole Chewins, either.

They might not become stars this year but their growth is critical to the future of the program because they won’t have a choice but to play next year when Brandon Clemons, Keiler, Machado, (likely) McDowell, Sherrod and Williams all depart.

As bleak as it may seem right now, this is not the end of the line for the Michigan State program. Far from it. There is a ton of talent up and down the roster that is just starting to hit the field and Dantonio is still one of the best coaches in the country. One bad season will not change that.

Spartan fans have been down some dark roads before but, as they say, it’s always darkest before dawn. Let’s hope that sun starts rising again before too long.