The Spartans rank No. 16 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2019
An elite defense and the return of a healthy, capable quarterback in Brian Lewerke will stack Michigan State with the goods to give any team trouble in 2019. A revamped offensive approach will make MSU an intriguing variable in the tight Big Ten East. The Spartans aren't expected to win their fourth division title in nine years, but they will at least have a major impact on who does.
Mark Dantonio had notched double-digit win totals in four of the previous five seasons, but a massive rash of injuries ended hopes of doing it again in 2018. Injuries caused 10 offensive starters to miss 48 games last year, resulting in the Spartans ranking No. 117 in the nation in total offense.
MSU's 85 wins since 2010 are third most in the Big Ten and tied for No. 11 among Power 5 teams. But last year's offensive implosion caused Dantonio to shuffle his staff and move away from a slow-huddle, two-back offense in favor of a mainstream, one-back, up-tempo approach under new offensive coordinator Brad Salem.
Previewing Michigan State's Offense for 2019
After Lewerke suffered a shoulder injury during an upset victory at Penn State in Week 6, the Spartans scored seven or fewer points in four of their last seven games. Lewerke played through pain and a hampered throwing motion in four of those games, but he wasn't himself, and neither were the Spartans. Lewerke's arm strength, accuracy and confidence are back, and so is the mobility and playmaking knack that helped him become honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore.
Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor each missed games with injuries last year but are back to give the Spartans a solid trio of receivers. White has good size and is a big-play threat on the outside. Stewart has 101 career catches and is primed for his best season in the slot. Slippery tight end Matt Dotson had 14 catches in 2018 and has downfield potential.
Versatile tailback Connor Heyward rushed for 529 yards to go with 32 catches last year, but he isn't a game-breaker. No Spartan showed feature-back ability when LJ Scott missed eight games last year. La'Darius Jefferson has size and functionality. Freshmen Elijah Collins and Anthony Williams Jr. showed promise in the spring. With Scott gone, someone needs to rise.
Seven offensive linemen with starting experience return from a unit that sorted through nine different starting lineups due to injury last year. Michigan State lacked physicality up front in 2018, failing to get movement on double-team blocks. Several guys have each added at least 10 pounds, including left tackle Cole Chewins and right tackle Jordan Reid, as the Spartans seek improvement under venerable first-year offensive line coach Jim Bollman. Matt Allen and Kevin Jarvis will be solid at center and right guard, respectively.
Previewing Michigan State's Defense for 2019
Michigan State led the nation in rush defense last year and will be among the best in 2019 with defensive tackles Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams rarely yielding an inch inside. Defensive end Kenny Willekes planned to opt for the NFL after being Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, but a broken leg in the Redbox Bowl ended those plans. The high-motored Willekes is expected to be fully recovered after leading the Big Ten in tackles for a loss with 20.5.
Sturdy and tenacious Mike linebacker Joe Bachie was first-team All-Big Ten in 2018 and has started 26 straight games. Tyriq Thompson returns as a dependable strong-side linebacker, and Antjuan Simmons is a proven player, ready to make noise in the slot as the new starter at Star linebacker.
Josiah Scott is Dantonio's next great cornerback, sticky and quick after missing the first eight games of 2018 with a knee injury. Shakur Brown and Josh Butler are proven candidates for the other corner position. David Dowell has two seasons of All-Big Ten play behind him at field safety but has had patches of inconsistency. Sophomore Xavier Henderson is ready to be an impact player as a new starter at strong safety after a year as the nickel back.
Previewing Michigan State's Specialists for 2019
Placekicker Matt Coghlin was first-team All-Big Ten after going 18-of-22 on field goals with a career long of 49 yards. Jake Hartbarger is a career 42.1-yard punter and will get a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a broken leg early last year.
Michigan State's punishing defense will pave the way to Dantonio’s 12th bowl appearance. The experienced X-factors on offense will determine whether this will be another seven-win season or yield double-digit wins with an outside shot of contention for Dantonio’s fourth Big Ten championship.
Salem, the new offensive coordinator, is in his 10th season on staff after working his way up from running backs coach and quarterbacks coach. The former Division II head coach at Augustana College in South Dakota holds the keys to the new-look Spartans on offense. Critics have wondered for years what it would look like if MSU's stout defense were paired with a modern offense. With good talent in the passing game, the Spartans are a quality offensive line away from becoming a dangerous dark horse in the Big Ten East.