The 2016 college football season was nothing short of a nightmare for the Michigan State Spartans and their fans. A year removed from punching a ticket to the College Football Playoff, Mark Dantonio's Spartans won just three games all season – and only one game in conference.
It was understood that there would probably be a bit of a drop-off after losing the caliber of talent that they did. Few, however, could have predicted that the team would fail to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in 10 years. To make matters worse heading into 2017, legal matters involving both players and coaches hang over the program like a dark cloud.
With the strides being made by the "other" Michigan team in the Big Ten, the pressure is on Dantonio and the Spartans to rebound and establish themselves as serious contenders in the East Division once again. For that to come to fruition much work needs to be done and many questions need to be answered this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch in Michigan State's Spring Practice
1. Brian Lewerke's command of the offense
All signs point to Lewerke being the guy at quarterback for the Spartans. He saw action during four games in 2016 and showed flashes of brilliance against both Northwestern and Michigan before breaking his leg. If he can hold off Damien Terry, show command of the offense and have a solid spring, that opens the door for him to become the next long-term starter at the position. Stability at the quarterback position has gone hand-in-hand with Michigan State's recent success.
2. Elite playmakers emerging on defense
The Spartans have been at their best over the years when they have elite defenses led by elite playmakers like Shilique Calhoun, Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. They lost another big-time talent from last season in defensive tackle Malik McDowell. Sophomores Mike Panisiuk and Raequan Williams will be leaned on heavily to not only replace McDowell on the field, but also to become vocal leaders as well. The Spartans are in need of a consistent, effective pass rusher too. Robert Bowers seems like the most likely candidate to emerge and assume that role.
3. New faces on the offensive line
Michigan State's offensive line lost three starters to graduation from last season. Guard Brian Allen does return and has all-conference potential, but the rest of this unit is largely unproven. You may see Allen start at center, forcing David Beedle to step into that guard position. The spring will be the time to look for effective combinations and rotations, hopefully solidifying the unit before fall camp opens. LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes is the best running back tandem in the Big Ten, but they'll struggle mightily if the offensive line doesn’t come together.
4. New faces in the secondary
The Spartans lost two safeties and a corner to graduation and the draft. Justin Layne is the only returning defensive back with legitimate game experience, and he'll be looked to as the leader of the unit. Guys like Grayson Miller and Khari Willis will be instrumental in filling those voids and continuing the recent trend of dominant play in Michigan State's defensive backfield.
5. Replacing R.J. Shelton
Shelton was one of the more dynamic players in the Big Ten over the last couple of seasons. He was a guy who made opposing defensive coordinators do that extra bit of preparation to account for everything he did through the air and on the ground. Michigan State needs that type of player in its offense – someone to provide that extra wrinkle to ensure the Spartan attack isn't one-dimensional. Donnie Corley seems like the most likely candidate. A natural defensive back, he stepped into the receiver role last season and proved capable. His athleticism should allow the Spartans to do some of the same things with him that they did with Shelton. Pay close attention to how and where Corley is used during the spring session.
Pre-Spring Michigan State Outlook in the Big Ten
With so much uncertainty at so many positions heading into 2017, it's tough to see the Spartans getting back into the mix for a division title this season. They'll be one of the youngest teams in the conference and facing a formidable schedule coming off of season when almost nothing went right. The home game against Notre Dame – a team in a similar situation after a disappointing 2016 – will likely set the tone this fall. Even then, the Spartans host Iowa and Penn State and travel to Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State. Bowl eligibility is a realistic goal for this team. Anything more would be a bonus. The Spartans are probably another year away from competing for trips to Indianapolis again.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.