I hate to tear off this scab just as it’s starting to heal, but we need to talk about Michigan State Football.
The 2016 season came to an end roughly two weeks ago, with the final nail in the coffin coming in Happy Valley and following the all-too-familiar pattern of self-destruction — start out ok, settle for field goals, get blown out in the second half — that led MSU to a 3-9 record, the school’s worst since 1982.
What went wrong or, more elusively, what went right? Let’s take a look back at the storylines that shaped the season and peer into what is sure to be a busy offseason.
WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT: 2016 in Review
1. Attrition Hurt More Than Expected
We really should have seen this one coming.
It was no secret that Michigan State was losing quite a few standouts from 2015’s College Football Playoff team. Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Conklin and Shilique Calhoun were the headliners, but other seniors like Jack Allen, Donovan Clark, Darien Harris, Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath also graduated. Those were expected and the replacements were recruited, but what really crippled the Spartans were the unexpected departures.
This has been covered ad nauseam on this site, but losing eight total defensive linemen — Calhoun, Heath, Thomas, Craig Evans, Montez Sweat, Cassius Peat, Enoch Smith and Damon Knox — was devastating. Graduate transfers Kevin Williams and Gabe Sherrod were brought in to plug the holes but neither was able to make a big impact. The pass rush was anemic at best registering only 11 sacks in 12 games and many redshirts were burned in an attempt to correct the issue. There were plenty of other issues but the lack of pass rush hamstrung the defense all year.
2. The Underwhelming Upperclass
Mark Dantonio’s program has been built on player development for the last 10 years but the junior and senior classes failed to play to MSU’s lofty standards this season. Safeties Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson were routinely burned, Miguel Machado and David Beedle were both benched along the offensive line and, in addition to Williams and Sherrod, defensive linemen Evan Jones and Demetrius Cooper were both forced down the rotation by freshmen as the season progressed. Oh, and then there’s that quarterback situation.
You have to feel for Tyler O’Connor. On a team with a solid offensive line and capable defense — like, say any team between 2013-15 — he can probably win MSU 8 or 9 games but he was hopelessly lost on this year’s squad. When teams didn’t expect the throw, he was functional but in obvious passing situations he was downright terrible. O’Connor deserves credit for not quitting on his team and being a good sport about getting benched even after waiting until his redshirt senior season for his turn, but a new face under center will be welcome next year.
3. Coaching Conundrum
For most fans, the truly frustrating part of this season wasn’t the players, but the coaches. It’s always easy to make coaches the scapegoat since we don’t know who screwed up when things go wrong, but the Spartan staff did not do themselves any favors.
The favorite target of fan hate (your author’s included) was offensive coordinator Dave Warner. In fairness, Warner has been in charge of some of the best offenses in school history and deserves some benefit of the doubt. That said, he did a bad job this year. It happens but it sure was frustrating.
The offensive play-calling was not overly different from 2015 but personnel was, and therein lie the problem:
In 2015, Cook was able to cover up predictable and often ineffective first and second down runs with long third down passes. In 2016, O’Connor was not.
In 2015, MSU had the offensive line (when healthy) to get east-west and run jet sweeps and shovel passes. In 2016, they did not.
In 2015, Gerald Holmes and Madre London were a step ahead of LJ Scott and deserved carries. In 2016, Scott was the best player on the offense, but still lost carries and it probably cost his team wins in the middle of the year.
Warner is not solely to blame by any stretch — the defense, especially the safeties looked completely lost despite being upperclassmen and the return game and coverage remained complete non-factors — but his inability to put a flawed group of players into positions to succeed severely handicapped MSU’s ability to win games.
The entire coaching staff will be back next season, but if things don’t improve that may change quickly.
WHAT DO WE DO NOW: Key Offseason Storylines
1. A Necessary Reset
In a strange way, this longer off-season may be exactly what the Michigan State program needs. I’m not advocating winning 25% of your games every season, but a chance to do a hard reset and re-evaluate your entire team could do MSU wonders.
First of all, it lets the coaching staff hit the recruiting trail earlier and harder than in seasons past. Anyone would take a shortened recruiting cycle if it meant going back to the College Football Playoff, but with so much at stake — and so much playing time to sell — those extra visits may lead to finding building blocks MSU will need moving forward.
Secondly, it gives players a chance to lead and make the program theirs. To steal from Tom Izzo, a player coached team is always better than a coach coached team. MSU was sorely lacking for player leadership this year and that has to change moving forward. Look back at the most successful seasons of the past decade. Players like Calhoun, Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and Cook (insert “captain” joke here) led by example, whereas Cox and O’Connor couldn’t do that this season. There are several candidates — Chris Frey and Brian Allen come to mind — that will have the chance start setting examples during the voluntary offseason workouts that will take the place of those bowl practices.
Finally, it puts MSU back where it plays its best — as the hunted. The “chip on the shoulder” mantra is tired but, boy, will it apply heading into 2017. Not that they deserve any, but MSU will get no love this offseason. Pundits nationwide will ask “will the Spartans ever bounce back?” and probably pick MSU to finish fourth (at best) in the Big Ten East. Fine. They’ve been there and thrived before. If the right team leaders make their voices heard, it can be the rallying cry that gets MSU back on track.
2. Tons of Experience
The silver lining of having so many disappointing upperclassmen is the playing time gained by the underclassmen, especially along the lines where they struggled so mightily.
Instead of losing eight contributors along the defensive front, MSU will “only” have to replace Malik McDowell, Jones, Sherrod and Kevin Williams. McDowell will be tough, obviously, but the line did look very solid without him in their final three games as the freshmen began to play like anything but. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Willams form a stout defensive tackle combination while Cooper, Josh King, Auston Robertson and Robert Bowers make up a nice end rotation. Add in Naquan Jones, Dillon Alexander, Mufi Hunt and Kyonta Stallworth and you might just have yourself a good line.
On offense, Machado, Brandon Clemens and Benny McGowan are gone, but the left side of Cole Chewins and Tyler Higby looks promising, as does freshman Thiyo Lukusa who could start at right tackle or guard. Allen will be a cog in the middle and Dennis Finley should be fully recovered from a broken leg suffered two seasons ago.
It doesn’t end up front, though. Underclassmen contributed at quaterback (Brian Lewerke), receiver (Donnie Corley, Felton Davis, Trishton Jackson), running back (Scott), linebacker (Joe Bachie, Tyriq Thompson, Andrew Dowell), cornerback (Justin Layne, Corley, David Dowell, Josh Butler) and safety (Grayson Miller, Khari Willis).
Also, don’t forget that the last few classes have been Dantonio’s best and now many of them have experience. There is a lot of reason for optimism.
3. Finding a Quarterback
Ultimately, the single biggest question Michigan State needs to address this offseason is this: who is your Quarterback?
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer, at least in the immediate sense. Lewerke is the prohibitive favorite after beating out Damian Terry for the starting job when Dantonio finally decided to bench O’Connor but he is also coming off a broken tibia which leaves the door open.
Terry will try to seize the opportunity and make his case for his one year shot at fame. He did play well against Penn St, but went down with a concussion and injuries have been a major issue for him in his career. Plus, he wasn’t able to beat out O’Connor last year and we all saw how he did. It would be a mild surprise to see Terry start game one but much crazier things have happened.
The final contender is soon-to-be redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, Dantonio’s highest-rated quaterback recruit to date. deWeaver was the ring leader of the standout 2016 class and already has a great rapport with guys like Corley, Jackson and Cam Chambers, all of whom will figure prominently into next year’s receiving corps. With Lewerke’s health in question, he will have the benefit of getting at least second-team snaps in the spring and, if he can capitalize, could make this a very real competition come fall camp.
For the long-term health of the program, it is better if Lewerke or deWeaver win the job and, no disrespect to Terry, the chance to have a three or four year starter is probably going to be too much for Dantonio to pass up.
Keep it locked to The Only Colors all offseason to see how it all unfolds