Michigan State loses several key pieces from last year’s Big Ten title team, but coach Mark Dantonio’s program has plenty of staying power. The rebuilding effort starts on offense in replacing quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge and standout offensive linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin. The defense returns five starters, but this unit should be solid with standout tackle Malik McDowell anchoring the front seven. The secondary should be improved with the return of cornerback Vayante Copeland from injury, as well as the development of Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox at safety. While the Spartans have key players to replace, home games against Ohio State and Michigan should allow this team to stay in the thick of the Big Ten title picture.
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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense
Michigan State aims for a fourth straight top-10 finish, but the Spartans need to grow quickly on offense to hit that target.
“There’s a look that’s going to change,” 10th-year coach Mark Dantonio says, “but that’s the challenge of college football.”
Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor is the likely successor to MSU’s all-time leading passer, Connor Cook. O’Connor led the Spartans to a 17–14 upset over Ohio State with Cook sidelined by a shoulder injury. O’Connor and fourth-year junior Damion Terry are effective runners, and with an inexperienced offensive line, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Spartans adding more spread into their pro-style offense.
LJ Scott was the top rusher last season with 699 yards, including a memorable performance in a 16–13 Big Ten title game win over Iowa. Madre London and Gerald Holmes are proven and will push for carries. Likewise for fullback Delton Williams, who gives MSU another threat in the backfield.
Senior R.J. Shelton is the only returning receiver with more than seven catches. Shelton’s quickness makes him a threat on the jet sweep as well. Sophomore Felton Davis III is a lanky target with sprinter speed, and incoming freshman Donnie Corley made waves in the spring after his January mid-term enrollment, showing good speed, hands and leaping ability. Senior Josiah Price holds the team record for TD catches for a tight end, and he’s expected to continue his role as a go-to target on third downs and in the red zone.
The rebuild on the offensive line starts with preseason All-Big Ten candidate Brian Allen, who could play guard or center. Senior Kodi Kieler is the most experienced of the returning linemen with 19 starts and can play right tackle or center. Several position battles will take place in fall drills.
Previewing Michigan State’s Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Michigan State’s staple has been stopping the run, and it starts up front with dynamic junior Malik McDowell, who at 6'6", 280 has the strength, athleticism and quickness to play tackle or end. Junior Demetrius Cooper has flashed enough star potential at end that he’s expected to earn All-Big Ten honors in his first season as a starter.
The linebacking corps is as deep and talented as it has ever been under Dantonio, anchored by fifth-year senior Riley Bullough in the middle. A third-generation Spartan, Bullough led the team in tackles last season.
There’s plenty of competition for the outside linebacker positions, where Jon Reschke, Andrew Dowell, Chris Frey and Ed Davis are expected to battle it out for starting duties in fall camp and split repetitions once the season is underway.
MSU has arguably the best safety duo in the Big Ten: Montae Nicholson is a freakish athlete, and Demetrious Cox is a speed merchant with cornerback experience. Several others gained experience last season when injuries resulted in seven different starting combinations in the secondary.
Cornerbacks Darian Hicks and sophomore Vayante Copeland enter fall drills healthy after injuries plagued them last season. Sophomore Tyson Smith is expected to challenge at corner.
Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists
The return of kicker Michael Geiger and strong-legged sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger give the Spartans a chance for immediate improvement on special teams, provided long snapper Taybor Pepper is adequately replaced. Shelton is an experienced kick return man, while auditions for punt return duties figure to continue into the fall.
Michigan State’s Sept. 17 road trip to Notre Dame will provide an early clue as to whether the Spartans remain among the nation’s elite. A strong defense looks to carry a rebuilt offense against one of the more challenging schedules in the country.