EAST LANSING – Michigan State opens with its first of 15 spring football practices Saturday. And there are as many questions about personnel as there are about how the Spartans plan to rebound from a 3-9 disaster in 2016.
Who is suspended? Who is healthy? Who is competing for jobs?
MSU would not confirm the status of any individual players and is not planning to release a roster or depth chart at the outset of workouts. Coach Mark Dantonio and his staff aren’t yet being made available to answer any of those questions, either.
There are three investigations going on around the football program. One is a criminal investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving three unnamed players and tied to a suspended football staff member, one is a Title IX inquiry into the handling of those allegations, and the third is an examination of the entire football program by an independent, external law firm.
Two other projected starters have announced they have left the program, including linebacker Jon Reschke on Friday.
All of that will affect everything from who gets significant reps and with which units. Without having a spring roster or depth chart, many of the on-field questions cannot be fully or adequately addressed. But here are some of the things to keep in mind heading toward the Spartans’ April 1 annual spring game.
1. Attrition: We know the Spartans lose 28 seniors from the 2016 team, including All-Big Ten selections in linebacker Riley Bullough, cornerback Darian Hicks, tight end Josiah Price and wide receiver/kick returner R.J. Shelton. Two All-Big Ten juniors, defensive lineman Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson, opted to enter the NFL draft. Two projected starters also announced this month they were leaving the program – right tackle Thiyo Lukusa, who played last fall as a true freshman, and outside linebacker Reschke, who sat out most of last season with an ankle ailment and who could have two years of eligibility remaining due to injuries.
2. Injuries: MSU had players miss a combined 34 games with injuries last season, including 13 of the 22 starters from the first-game depth chart. Four underclassmen suffered season-ending injuries: Reschke (ankle, missed 10 games), cornerback Vayante Copeland (broken foot, five games), quarterback Brian Lewerke (broken tibia, four games) and left guard Tyler Higby (broken ankle, two games). Dantonio in December said rising senior QB Damion Terry had a minor knee procedure. Running back LJ Scott also revealed on Twitter after the season that he had two surgeries on his shoulder. The status and health of all of those players are not known.
3. Newcomers: MSU has three early enrollees this winter: tight end Jack Camper, wide receiver Hunter Rison and cornerback Josiah Scott. There are openings for all three of the true freshmen to step in and contribute as the Spartans graduated their top two tight ends (Price and Jamal Lyles), two first-group wideouts (Shelton and Monty Madaris) and Hicks at cornerback. MSU also has two openings at safety, with both Nicholson and graduated senior Demetrious Cox gone.
4. Line dance: Both the offensive and defensive lines were problematic for MSU last season. The Spartans failed to generate pressure on defense (11 sacks) and struggled to protect on offense (27 sacks allowed). They also were a middle-of-the-pack Big ten team in both running the ball (172.7 yards per game, seventh) and stopping the run (158.7 ypg, 10th), two of the hallmarks of Dantonio’s program. Gone is anchor Brandon Clemons, perhaps MSU’s most valuable player last season as a two-way lineman out of necessity. Also graduated are one-time starters Kevin Williams at defensive tackle and Kodi Kieler, Benny McGowan and Miguel Machado from the offensive line, along with the loss of Lukusa.
5. Quarterback decision: Dantonio said in December he expects rising sophomore Lewerke to be the starter at QB after getting two starts and four games of action in 2016 as a redshirt freshman. Terry started the final game against Penn State but was knocked out with a concussion. Messiah deWeaver redshirted last fall after enrolling early and playing in the spring game a year ago. It is the first time in Dantonio’s 11 seasons he enters the season with back-to-back starting quarterback openings, though 2012 starter Andrew Maxwell lost the job after Kirk Cousins’ graduation early in the 2013 season to Connor Cook.