Spartans Strengths And Weaknesses Heading Into '18 Season

Spartans Strengths And Weaknesses Heading Into '18 Season

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Spartans Strengths And Weaknesses Heading Into '18 Season

Spartans’ strengths outweigh the weaknesses – and the weaknesses appear to be very manageable.

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Fantastic piece below from MLive’s Matt Wenzel as he takes a close look at the strengths and weaknesses across all units for the Spartans as the team inches closer to the 2018 season.

Quick peek and SpartansWire take on each area –

STRENGTHS:

Established quarterback.  

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone if Brian Lewerke ends up winning the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player award when the 2018 season concludes.  We all know it but there are plenty of folks out there who don’t know it – 2017 was merely a glimpse into what Lewerke is capable of and the fact that he is as dangerous of a runner as he is separates him from the other “top” quarterbacks across the conference and nation.  It might sound crazy but if you read the stuff that appears on SpartansWire, you know that sounding crazy isn’t something we’re concerned with – if Brian Lewerke is invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December, that won’t surprise anyone here.

Motivated LJ Scott.

We know this guy is strong.  We know he’s got speed when he gets out in the open.  We know he’s big.  We know he has a knack for finding the endzone.  The only real “questions” relate to the reputation he’s earned for being a fumbler and the level of motivation he brings each Saturday.  If LJ can just commit himself to never losing his grip on the football and refusing to put in on the ground, he’ll have earned himself a lot more money from an NFL team since he has to kill the bad rap he’s earned.  And in understanding that his senior season is his final shot at demonstrating his value to the NFL, we’d all have to assume that he’s going to attack each week with brute force.  If he handles these two areas of concern, there is no ceiling for him.

Playmakers at Wide Receiver.

Felton Davis, Cody White, Darrell Stewart, Cam Chambers, Laress Nelson.  On a piece of paper, that group looks as good as any receiving corps during the Dantonio Era. Size, speed, toughness, chemistry with the quarterback, and clutch-time dependability make this group a dangerous weapon.  Very little downside here.

Defensive Back depth.

No Fly Zone, Part II.  The secondary is full of studs that will be coming in and out and switching positions effectively all season long.  There is speed, coverage skill, an eye and a knack for picking off the ball, terrific toughness and skill with regard to tackling in the open field, and a togetherness that started with the original No Fly Zone.  It doesn’t matter who’s player where or who’s playing when – this unit is as good of a secondary as there is in the Big Ten and I’d stack it up against just about any secondary in the nation.

Strong against the run.

Much like the secondary, the defensive front is full of strong, angry, powerful, and skilled interior monsters who are poised to take what they built on last year and grow on it.  This group was #2 in the nation last season against the run.  Losing Demetrius Cooper is a bigger loss than some may want to admit – he gobbled up a lot of bodies and helped the rest of the line be as successful as it was last season.  But, there are too many bodies to name who will all contribute to a defensive line that has a shot at being the best defensive line in the conference and, potentially, the nation.  No star power? That’s just the way they like it.

WEAKNESSESES:

Center change.

This is a weakness due to the graduation of Spartan Warrior, Brian Allen.  It says here that Brian’s younger brother, Matt, will pick up right where Brian left off.  Consider this a weakness on paper only.

Unproven backups at QB, RB.

If Brian Lewerke goes down due to the injury – something that’s a legitimate concern due to his mobility and athleticism – the outlook for the entire season would change.  Of course, that’s true for any college football program.  But with the 2018 Spartans, there is an increased amount of concern here due to the fact that the backups are so green.  Yes, Rocky Lomabardi and Theo Day each have shown that there is tremendous potential.  But even the most optimistic Spartan has to recognize that if the season rested in either of the eager backup’s hands, there would be good reason for the expectations to change dramatically.

Special Teams uncertainties.

Despite the terrific moments of such iconic plays as “Little Giants,” “Mousetrap,” “Hey Diddle Diddle,” and other memorable plays made on Special Teams over the Dantonio Era, it’s not unfair to point to the numbers below in Wenzel’s piece and see that Special Teams have been a fairly consistent area of weakness for years.  When was the last time Michigan State had a real threat in the return game?  When was the last time Michigan State regularly pinned the opponent back deep on kickoff?  Jake Hartbarger is going to be rock solid as a punter and Matt Coughlin showed promise as a true freshman field goal kicker last season.  But the return game and the coverage execution are areas that really need improvement.

Finding replacements on the edge.

Demetrius Cooper played a bigger part in last season’s #2 rushing defense in the nation and the dramatic improvement on sack totals (11 in 2016, 28 in 2017) than some may realize.  His size alone demanded the attention of the opposing offensive line.  He took up space and bodies and that helped the rest of the gang be successful.  Dillon Alexander, Justice Alexander, Mufi Hill-Hunt, Naquan Jones, Gerald Owens, Jacob Panasiuk, Mike Panasiuk, Kenny Willekes, and Raequan Williams – collectively, this group gives Spartans every reason to think that the defensive front will be dominant.  But, can individual players break out and become forceful weapons from the edge?  It says here that Kenny Willekes will earn All Big Ten status by establishing himself as a penetrator with speed, agility, and strength that will make him just the latest example of a Spartan who couldn’t get a scholarship offer from Albion College to being on the verge of an long NFL career.

Point production.

Wenzel lays it out nicely.  Michigan State needs to improve on last season’s 24.5 points per game average.  That was good for 96th in the nation – making the 10-3 record all the more impressive, thanks to the defense.  With that strong receiving corps and a (healthy) leader like Lewerke who knows this is a key component to the team’s success, the Spartans will increase their points per game output due to the weapons and the understanding of what’s necessary.

Breaking down Michigan State’s biggest strengths and weaknesses

Michigan State wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. (25) celebrates with teammates after a touchdown during their 2018 spring football game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, on Saturday, April 7, 2018.

Following a resurgent 10-3 season last year, Michigan State is attempting to carry that momentum over to 2018.

The bulk of the team remains intact as the Spartans brought back 19 of 22 starters. Spring practice wrapped up last month and here’s a look at Michigan State’s biggest strengths and weaknesses heading into the 2018 season:

Strength: Established quarterback

Injuries and ineffectiveness resulted in a three-quarterback rotation that was one of the numerous downfalls in the 2016 season. Brian Lewerke stabilized the position last year and will enter the fall as one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He finished last season with 3,352 yards of total offense for the second highest single-season total in program history.

Lewerke completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,793 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions and was second on the team in rushing with 559 yards and five scores on 124 carries. He wants to improve his completion percentage this fall and become more accurate on deep ball attempts, both of which would boost a Michigan State offense that struggled at times last year.

Brian Lewerke focused on taking next step as a quarterback and leader

Weakness: Center change

Center Brian Allen was the lone starter Michigan State lost on offense from last season, but it was a significant departure. The fourth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Rams was a captain and the anchor of a young offensive line and now the Spartans need to replace him.

The frontrunner to take over the job is Allen’s younger brother, redshirt sophomore Matt Allen who gained some experience last season and started the spring game last month. Both Lewerke and coach Mark Dantonio complimented Matt Allen’s performance this spring but he is still unproven after playing just 48 snaps in 11 games last year. Redshirt junior Tyler Higby and sophomore Jordan Reid are among the other options at center.

Matt Allen could become third member of family to start at center for Michigan State

Strength: Motivated LJ Scott

Scott could have left for the NFL after last season but chose to return for his senior year and the running back should be highly motivated. Although he led Michigan State in rushing each of the last three years and ranks 12th on program’s all-time rushing list with 2,591 yards, he has yet to reach 1,000 yards in a season and that will be a goal this fall.

With Gerald Holmes and Madre London gone, Scott is now the lone veteran in the backfield and could be in line for a 250-carry season, according to Dantonio. Scott will surely want to get his senior year off to a better start than his junior season, which featured three lost fumbles in the first three games – two of which occurred as he was attempting to cross the goal line and one that was returned for a touchdown. Improved ball security and career-high rushing totals would improve Scott’s draft stock for next year.

It's now LJ Scott's backfield and he plans to step up production and leadership

Weakness: Unproven backups at QB, RB

Lewerke and Scott are established playmakers but the same can’t be said for those behind them on the depth chart.

Lewerke is the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap for the Spartans while backup Rocky Lombardi took a redshirt as a true freshman last year. He showed the ability to make plays with his arm and legs during the spring game but still hasn’t appeared in a college game. Behind Lombardi, true freshman Theo Day was an early enrollee but will likely be headed for a redshirt this season while Mickey Macius, a graduate transfer from Austin Peay who never appeared on the depth chart last year, appears to be an emergency option.

With Holmes graduating and London opting to take a graduate transfer to Tennessee, Michigan State’s three-man backfield is now Scott’s to lead. Sophomore Connor Heyward, who had three rushes for 10 yards last season, is the only other running back on the roster who has carried the ball for Michigan State and he appears poised to take on a bigger role this fall.

There are additional options, but they’re untested. Alante Thomas is a sophomore walk-on who had nine carries for 73 yards and a touchdown in the spring game but also struggled holding on to the ball. Weston Bridges took a redshirt as a true freshman last season while recovering from a torn ACL suffered his senior year of high school and is expected to be ready this fall. Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson both signed with Michigan State’s 2018 class but won’t arrive on campus until the summer.

Mark Dantonio pleased with progress of Michigan State QBs this spring

Strength: Playmakers at WR

Michigan State turned to a trio of new starting receivers last season. Those three are now back and the position group went from an unknown to a strength. Starters Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White are all back after combining for 140 receptions for 1,767 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Davis, heading in his senior season, established himself as a deep-ball threat and key target in the red zone after leading the team with 55 receptions for 776 yards and nine touchdowns. Stewart, a redshirt junior, emerged as the starter in the slot last year and finished with 50 catches for 501 yards and two touchdowns. White took over a starting role midway through his true freshman season and closed strong by racking up 35 receptions for 490 yards and four touchdowns.

Trishton Jackson and Hunter Rison transferred in the offseason, but the Spartans have other options at receiver in redshirt sophomore Cam Chambers, sophomore Laress Nelson and redshirt freshman C.J. Hayes, among others.

Michigan State wide receivers step up with lofty expectations this season

Weakness: Special teams uncertainties

Jake Hartbarger is heading into his fourth season as the starting punter while placekicker Matt Coghlin was solid in his debut as a redshirt freshman last year. Beyond that, there are some special teams uncertainties for Michigan State.

Brett Scanlon graduated so the Spartans need to find a new kickoff specialist. Redshirt freshmen Cole Hahn and Tyler Hunt were competing this spring for the spot, along with Coghlin. The Spartans will be looking for whoever wins the job to improve the team’s performance last year as Scanlon averaged just 60.9 yards per kickoff and had only 14 touchbacks, which tied for 12th in the Big Ten.

Michigan State used a trio of receivers at punt returner last season in White, Nelson and Stewart and, as a team, it finished 118th in the nation with an average of 3.9 yards per return. The Spartans also mixed it up returning kickoffs and Heyward had the most attempts as they finished 62nd in the country at 21.39 yards per return. Although ball security on returns wasn’t much of an issue last year, Michigan State could use a spark.

Strength: Defensive back depth

Michigan State turned to four new full-time defensive back starters last fall and it now returns its entire starting secondary in cornerbacks Josiah Scott and Justin Layne and safeties Khari Willis and David Dowell.

Scott had an impressive debut for a true freshman with two interceptions and a team-high 10 pass breakups while Layne benefitted from playing only defense (he lined up at both receiver and cornerback as a true freshman in 2016) and was second on the team with eight pass breakups. Dowell took over a starting spot at the beginning of Big Ten play and his five interceptions were the most for a Spartan since 2001 while Willis finished fourth on the team with 71 tackles and had four sacks and two interceptions.

There’s also proven depth behind the returning starters, including senior Tyson Smith and redshirt junior Josh Butler at cornerback. At safety, fifth-year senior Matt Morrissey has appeared in 35 career games with four starts while sophomore Dominique Long proved himself on special teams last year and could find a spot in the rotation.

Two of Michigan State’s highest-rated incoming freshmen were early enrollees in safety Xavier Henderson and cornerback Kalon Gervin. Both appeared in the spring game and Henderson had been working as the starting nickel back in practice.

Michigan State returns all four starters in secondary but competition continues

Weakness: Finding replacements on the edge

Michigan State has two starters to replace on defense and both played on the edge in defensive end Demetrius Cooper and strong-side linebacker Chris Frey. Cooper didn’t put up big numbers (29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks) in his final season with the Spartans while Frey (55 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, nine quarterback hurries) also had a statistical decline with the emergence of Joe Bachie at middle linebacker but he still found his way into the backfield as an edge rusher.

Starting up front, Michigan State needs to find a defensive end to pair with redshirt junior Kenny Willekes, a former walk-on who is coming off a breakout season. Sophomore Jacub Panasiuk, redshirt junior Justice Alexander and fifth-year senior Dillon Alexander are among those in the mix. Justice Alexander has appeared in just two career games while Dillon Alexander lost his starting job to Cooper last year and had just four tackles in 11 games. Panasiuk was impressive at times last season and finished with 15 tackles, including three for a loss, and one sack in 13 games.

Justice Alexander an early standout as Michigan State looks for help at defensive end

Strength: Strong against the run

Michigan State improved significantly at defending the run last season. After finishing 51st in the nation at 158.7 yards rushing yards allowed per game in 2016, the Spartans were No. 2 last year at just 95.3 per game. The only team that was better was Alabama (94.7), which won the national championship.

The Spartans opened Big Ten play by limiting Iowa to just 19 yards on the ground and held seven of nine conference opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. After being gashed by Ohio State for 335 rushing yards in a blowout loss in November, Michigan State allowed just 121 yards on the ground in its final three games combined.

Starting defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk return at the heart of the defensive line while Bachie is coming off a breakout season in which he finished with 100 tackles to lead the Spartans and was voted team MVP.

Pressure on Michigan State offense to score more points

Weakness: Point production

Michigan State’s 10-3 record represented the biggest single-season improvement in program history at seven wins. It was also an indication of how good the Spartans’ defense was as they averaged just 24.5 points per game, which ranked 96th out of 129 teams nationally.

Michigan State was the only team in America to record 10 wins while averaging fewer than 27.1 points per game and only four teams that averaged fewer points than the Spartans finished with a record above .500.

The 24.5-point average is the third-lowest total during Dantonio’s first 11 seasons with the program and well off the 43.0 per game Michigan State averaged in 2014 while setting program records on offense.

Improving their red zone offense will be a focus for the Spartans after they finished 79th in the nation last year in that category with 42 scores (30 touchdowns and 12 field goals) in 51 trips.

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