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Green and White Game Preview: Offense

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Hey, it can’t get any worse than last year! Right? RIGHT?!?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State’s yearly Green and White Spring Football Game is this Saturday. Normally, there would be a lot to get excited about, especially coming off of a disastrous season like the one they had last fall. But with legal issues looming over the program, optimism has been dampened a bit.

Mark Dantonio did address the media this week, but didn’t say a whole lot beyond that his program is taking the investigation very seriously. Whether you think he handled the timing of the presser well or not, you can’t be shocked by the lack of substance or his unwillingness to name names.

Unfortunately for Dantonio, there is only so much he can do short of canceling the game, which he already said will not happen. Come Saturday at 3pm, fans will be able to see who is playing and who is on the sideline for themselves. The speculative fires will be stoked and names will be smeared, despite the fact that not all those in street clothes will be that way because of a connection with the investigation. It’s unfair to those kids, but this is the route the program has chosen to take, for better or worse.

For this exercise, however, we are not going to speculate as to who is or is not involved in the investigation. We’re simply going to write about what we know.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the offense.


NCAA Football: Michigan State at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback

Favorite: Brian Lewerke (RS Soph)

Competition: Damion Terry (RS Sr), Messiah deWeaver (RS Fr)

Departures: Tyler O’Connor

Year one post-Connor Cook was rough.

Tyler O’Connor came into the year as the starter and everyone (your author included) thought he would build upon the success he had on the road against Ohio State the year before. Instead, the universe said NAH.

It wasn’t all his fault, far from it, but 2016 was a disaster. O’Connor struggled to complete passes with pressure in his face (which, in fairness, was A LOT) and lacked the touch to complete crucial drive-extending intermediate throws. His numbers didn’t end up being that terrible (58.8% completion, 1,970 yards, 16 TD/9 INT) but were skewed by a LOT of deep balls being completed.

Following a dismal performance against BYU, TO’C was benched in favor of then-redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke, who enters 2017 as the prohibitive favorite to win the starting job. While Lewerke didn’t put up great numbers, he passed the eye test with much better grades than either O’Connor or redshirt senior Damion Terry. Had he not broken his leg against Michigan, he almost certainly would have started the last four games of the season. Instead, MSU limped to the barn with O’Connor and Terry, who did very little to make him a serious contender for the starting job this year.

Lewerke is, by all accounts, healthy and ready for the Spring game, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver. The ring leader of the heralded 2016 recruiting class has been described as the most talented quarterback of the Dantonio era and looked pretty comfortable last spring as an early enrollee. While Lewerke is the odds-on favorite to win the job, a big spring and summer from deWeaver could create an awfully interesting fall camp.

WHAT TO WATCH: Lewerke’s health and deWeaver’s progress

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

Running Back

Favorite: LJ Scott (Jr)

Competition: Gerald Holmes (RS Sr), Madre London (RS Jr)

Departures: None

If there is one position MSU fans should not have to worry about, it’s running back. Why? LJ Scott, that’s why.

As we have seen the last two years, Scott is a next level ball carrier. As a true freshman, he emerged down the stretch as the second half hammer and eventually assumed most of the carries. He came into his sophomore year leaner and more explosive but — like the team — came up short of lofty expectations.

A lot of that had to do with his offensive line which was, well, offensive (sorry) and the lack of a passing game. But also, Scott’s poor pass blocking — and offensive coordinator Dave Warner’s suspect rotations — kept him off the field for long stretches of time. There was a three game stretch in which Scott got 19 total carries. For a team struggling to create offense that is nowhere near enough.

2017 should (hopefully) be a different story. The offensive line improved significantly down the stretch — as evidenced by Scott’s 109.6 ypg in the last six games — and doesn’t lose any building blocks. Also, whether fans want to think about it or not, Scott probably has his eye on the NFL and is undoubtedly motivated to impress NFL scouts. It’s in his best interest, as well as the team’s, to showcase his versatility and skill set. If he’s locked in, Scott is as dangerous a weapon as there is in the conference.

Since it is the spring game, his backups, Gerald Holmes and Madre London, are both going to see a lot of time and might have something to say about all this praise. Holmes is a durable, reliable bruiser with surprising speed, but who struggles to read his offensive linemen and create extra space with cutbacks. London is the fastest and most slender of the bunch, but is a one-cut type of back who would thrive in a zone-blocking scheme. Unfortunately, MSU doesn’t employ said scheme and to counter that, he’s going to need to pack on some weight and learn to power through first contact.

WHAT TO WATCH: Scott’s pass blocking, Holmes’ vision and London’s toughness.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Iowa vs Michigan State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receiver

Favorites: Donnie Corley (Soph), Felton Davis III (Jr), Trishton Jackson (Soph)

Competition: Darrell Stewart (RS Soph), Justin Layne (Soph), Cam Chambers (RS Fr), Hunter Rison (Fr)

Departures: RJ Shelton, Monty Madaris, Matt Macksood, Edward Barksdale III

In some areas, turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This would be one of those places.

Yes, the Spartans lose RJ Shelton, who was an integral part of the last four seasons and their leading receiver, but the other departures — Monty Madaris, Matt Macksood and Edward Barksdale — made very little impact in the passing game. Madaris was the only one of the three to register any receiving stats and was only fourth on the team in catches (24) yardage (310) and touchdowns (1). Combine that with a loaded group of young wideouts, improvement at Quarterback and up front, and the change should be all-around beneficial.

The group is led by sophomore Donnie Corley who made his presence known right away as a freshman and figures to be the go-to target this fall. He’s flanked by Felton Davis III who is somehow a junior and will provide the biggest target among all Spartan WR’s. In the slot, there’s sophomore Tristhon “Toogie” Jackson who had his redshirt pulled thanks to some outstanding scout team performances a year ago and has drawn a lot of Keshawn Martin comparisons.

Corley aside, those “starters” will have to ward off some very talented players to keep their tenuous spots. Two freshmen, one redshirt and one true, pose the biggest threats to the playing group, for now. Cam Chambers (the redshirt) was the only member of the 2016 mega-WR-class that included four four-star players, to not see the field. This despite being absolutely JACKED. His physical presence alone should help him win time on the outside.

The true freshman, Hunter Rison, is an early enrollee who comes in with a ton of hype after choosing MSU over the likes of Alabama and Ohio State. The son of MSU legend Andre “Bad Moon” Rison is small (5’11” 197 — generous) but has great hands and is electric out of the slot. Don’t be surprised if he pushes Jackson for time and forces coaches to forgo his redshirt.

The two others in the mix are Darrell Stewart, who is described as a “running back with the ball” and got some looks last year but was largely unable to capitalize, and Justin Layne, a former four-star wideout who is now starting at cornerback. They both need big springs to make a move.

WHAT TO WATCH: Rison vs Jackson, who starts and who plays...

Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tight End

Favorite: Matt Sokol (Jr)

Competition: Noah Davis (RS Fr), Jack Camper (Fr)

Departures: Josiah Price, Jamal Lyles

Replacing your school’s all-time leader among Tight Ends in touchdown catches (21) — and, not to mention, his backup — is not an enviable position, but that’s where MSU finds themselves in 2017.

Gone are Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles, and in come junior Matt Sokol, redshirt freshman Noah Davis and early enrollee Jack Camper.

Sokol, the presumed starter, has been stuck behind Price and Lyles for three years but will get his chance to shine this season. He may not be as sound a blocker as Price but at 6’5” 250 pounds, Sokol is not only bigger but a much more fluid athlete. For all that Price brought to the table, no one would ever describe him as “fleet of foot” so Sokol’s speed and athleticism could bring an element to the tight end position that MSU has lacked since Brian Linthicum.

He will face a lot of competition for playing time, however. MSU has three tight ends behind him — Davis, Camper and Matt Dotson, a four-star tight end who will enroll in the fall — that will make serious pushes. MSU loves to play multiple tight end sets, often relying on one or more to chip a defensive end or take on a blitzing linebacker. Noah Davis (6’4” 258) seems best cut out for that blocking TE role, but will have to ward off Camper and Dotson.

Camper is an interesting case. He played both ways at the loaded IMG Academy in Florida but fell a bit under the radar, somehow, but the Spartans value two-way talent and were thrilled about his commitment. Right now, he’s the third tight end and while Dotson is widely expected to play this year — he’s regarded as one of the best pass-catching tight end recruits in the nation — Camper’s physicality and apparently underrated pass catching ability might just give him the upper hand.

WHAT TO WATCH: Sokol’s Athleticism and can Davis or Camper show balance?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line

Favorites: Cole Chewins (RS Soph), Tyler Higby (RS Soph), Brian Allen (Sr), David Beedle (RS Jr), Dennis Finley (RS Sr)

Competition: Devyn Salmon (RS Sr), Chase Gianacakos (RS Jr), Nick Padla (RS Jr), Noah Listermann (RS Soph), Matt Allen (RS Fr), AJ Arcuri (RS Fr), Luke Campbell (RS Fr)

Departures: Miguel Machado, Kodi Keiler, Brandon Clemens, Benny McGowan, Thiyo Lukusa (retirement)

This is the most integral and interesting group on the offense.

We’ve covered it, but last year was a disaster. Replacing Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donovan Clark — all 2016 NFL Draftee’s — proved to be too tall a task and it completely ravaged the offense. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In fact, there’s quite a bit of reason for optimism.

The line significantly improved as the year wore on, thanks in large part to the emergence of younger players, the main culprits being Cole Chewins and Tyler Higby, who helped prop up a woefully undermanned left side of the line. Chewins, in particular, has been a sleeper favorite on the message boards for a couple years now, in part because his story so closely resembles that of Conklin.

Like the former 8th overall pick in the NFL Draft, Chewins was lightly recruited two-star player who ended up choosing a grey-shirt offer from MSU over a MAC-level scholarship. Unlike Conklin, Chewins had to put on a LOT of weight after getting to East Lansing but has gone from 223 all the way to 273, since 2015. He was still a bit light last year, but at 6’8” with long arms, you could see why the coaches loved him so much. This year, it’s his job on the left side and after another offseason in the weight room (and the cafeteria) we could be looking at another top tier tackle.

On the inside, you have Higby, who for long stretches of time was MSU’s best lineman a year ago, Brian Allen, a solid senior who will play both guard and center, David Beedle, a reliable lineman who will play some right tackle as well, and a host of guards like Nick Padla and Matt Allen (yes, another Allen). Finally, he’s not in town yet, but you also have four-star guard Kevin Jarvis, who is apparently an absolute monster that will push for time right away. All in all, that’s a solid, malleable group.

The biggest question, at least right now, is who steps in at right tackle? There are plenty of options but no clear cut favorite. David Beedle could easily kick out to tackle, and might be the odds-on favorite, but there’s also Dennis Finley, the heir apparent less than 18 months ago, who appears to finally be ready after his gruesome leg injury. There are also three youngsters in Noah Listermann, AJ Arcuri and Luke Campbell looking to push for time. All three have size — Campbell is the shortest (6’5”) and lightest (280) — and will get a chance to play Saturday.

This should be a much improved unit thanks to the left side alone, but if another tackle emerges, look out.

WHAT TO WATCH: Has Chewins been chewing? How do they mix and match?

Check in later this week for the breakdown on defense.