Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five out of the last six seasons, so the bar is set high for coach Mark Dantonio as the program looks to quickly restock a depth chart losing a handful of key players. The Spartans were easily handled by Alabama in the College Football Playoff last year, but there were plenty of highs and accolades for last year’s team. Michigan State claimed the Big Ten title in dramatic fashion with a win over Iowa, won at Michigan and Ohio State and finished as a top-10 team in the final Associated Press poll for the third consecutive year. As Dantonio turns the page to 2016, Michigan State has its share of concerns. Quarterback, offensive line, receiving corps, defensive line and secondary are just a few of the issues for Dantonio to address in spring practice. However, there’s a solid foundation in place, and the Spartans aren’t going to regress too far in the Big Ten.
5 Storylines to Watch in Michigan State’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback Battle
Connor Cook leaves big shoes to fill in East Lansing, and all eyes in spring practice will be on the quarterback battle. Just how big are those shoes to fill for coach Mark Dantonio? Cook finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in career passing yards and touchdowns and compiled an impressive 34-5 overall record. Junior Damion Terry, senior Tyler O’Connor and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke enter spring practice vying for the starting job, with O’Connor a slight favorite due to his experience. Terry and O’Connor shared snaps in Michigan State’s upset win over Ohio State in 2015, and both players bring something different to the table. O’Connor is more of a pro-style quarterback, while Terry is a better runner. Will one quarterback emerge as the clear starter by the end of spring? Or could Michigan State utilize both O’Connor and Terry in major roles this season?
2. Restocking the Weapons at Receiver
Finding the right answer at quarterback is the unquestioned No. 1 issue for Dantonio and his staff this spring, but the receiving corps is also under the spotlight. Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. combined for 125 of Michigan State’s 244 receptions last year and both expired their eligibility at the end of the 2015 season. The cupboard is hardly bare, as receiver R.J. Shelton (43 grabs in 2015) and tight end Josiah Price are a solid duo to build around. However, which players will step forward to round out the receiving corps? Felton Davis and Monty Madaris are due for a bigger role, and talented freshmen Cam Chambers and Donnie Corley enrolled in time to compete this spring.
3. Finding the Right Mix on the Offensive Line
The question marks on offense continue in the trenches. Michigan State must replace three starters, including standouts Jack Conklin (LT) and Jack Allen (C). Guards Brian Allen and Benny McGowan and tackle Kodi Kieler are back as returning starters. Will all three players stay at those spots in the spring? Or will the coaching staff shuffle the players to get the best five on the field? Brandon Clemons is expected to be awarded a sixth season of eligibility, and tackle Dennis Finley is aiming for a return to 100 percent by the fall after a leg injury in early October. This unit has talented pieces in the mix, but Conklin and Allen won’t be easy to replace. How long will it take this unit to mesh this offseason?
4. Reloading on the Defensive Line
The Spartans have produced plenty of standouts in the trenches under Dantonio’s watch, and it’s time for the next wave of stars to emerge. Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas expired their eligibility, which leaves Malik McDowell as the lone returning starter on the defensive line. McDowell is a rising star and should contend for All-America honors after recording 13 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks last season. Demetrius Cooper, Craig Evans, Montez Sweat and Raequan Williams are a few names to watch as potential breakout candidates in the fall. This unit is expected to receive a boost from tackle Damon Knox, who expects to get a sixth season of eligibility for 2016.
5. Concerns in the Secondary
Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” wasn’t quite as intimidating to opponents in 2015. The Spartans ranked 72nd nationally in pass efficiency defense, gave up 20 passing scores (most since 2011) and allowed 22 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Injuries played a role in last year’s totals, and the return of cornerback Vayante Copeland should help to solidify one spot in the secondary. Darian Hicks is the frontrunner to grab the other cornerback spot, with Jermaine Edmondson and Tyson Smith vying for more snaps. At safety, Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson combined for six picks last season and form a solid tandem for 2016. Assuming Copeland returns to full strength, and both safeties continue to play at a high level, this unit is on track to take a significant step forward on the stat sheet.
Pre-Spring Michigan State Outlook in the Big Ten
It’s no secret most preseason predictions will have Michigan State picked third in the Big Ten East Division for 2016. The Spartans return only nine starters and enter the offseason with big question marks on both sides of the ball. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe this team will be a factor in the division and contend for one of college football’s top bowl games. Sophomore LJ Scott headlines a strong stable of running backs, while there’s some experience and a rising star at guard (Brian Allen) to build around in the trenches. The defense should show improvement in the secondary, but the line could take a small step back. Home dates against Michigan and Ohio State should allow Dantonio’s team to play spoiler. And with all preseason predictions likely to take the Buckeyes or Wolverines ahead of the Spartans, there's no shortage of fuel for Dantonio to use as motivation in 2016.