Thrown into the fire: Michigan State's youth is key for bounce-back season
Michigan State and 3-9.
Even after two months, it still doesn’t sound right. It’s a combination that just doesn’t fit and one that folks in East Lansing hope they never have to hear about again.
But it happened. Plain and simple, the Spartans were bad in 2016. Really bad. Injuries, a quarterback conundrum and inconsistent play on both the offensive and defensive lines caused Mark Dantonio to endure his worst season in East Lansing.
The highs were infrequent and the lows were aplenty. And yet, somehow, there’s a silver lining to Michigan State’s freefall from grace. It’s going to get better, thanks to Dantonio’s trek down an untraveled path – at least on his map.
For years now, Dantonio’s teams have abided by that unspoken wait-your-turn rule. Typically, Michigan State’s success falls on the shoulders of the seasoned upperclassmen. Incoming freshmen weren’t usually thrown into the fire, forced to learn on the go while battling for a B1G title. That has been a rarity for the Spartans.
All of that was thrown out the window last year, though. It had to be. With all of the injuries and the lack of production – not to mention the absence of quality veteran depth- Dantonio abandoned his principles and promoted some of his younger guys into starting roles.
By the end of the year, Michigan State had 20 players start for the first time 2016, the 11th-highest total in college football. Nine true freshman saw the field, t00, the most in one season since Dantonio’s arrival in 2007. Four of those nine – WR Donnie Corley, CB Justin Layne, DE Josh King and DT Mike Panasiuk – had at least two starts.
Seven redshirt freshmen also had at least one start to their name.
While the Spartans were getting pummeled on a weekly basis, Dantonio provided some of his younger players with a quicker-than-usual opportunity to get that in-game experience.
And for that group, that’s a benefit.
It doesn’t mean that a few games is going to turn Raequan Williams or King into the anchors on the defensive line that Michigan State needs. It’s not an indication that Layne, Grayson Miller and Tyson Smith are going to transcend into “No Fly Zone” 2.0. But it does prepare the younger guys for an expanded role and provides Dantonio with some experienced depth on his roster.
And the Spartans have some pretty good veteran talent returning at some key positions, too.
L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes will make up a steady backfield in East Lansing, with the offense likely focused on the run game. Last year, Scott rushed for 994 yards and six TDs on 184 carries. Holmes finished the season with 431 yards and five scores.
Though he’s a young gun, Corley is going to a handful for defenses at wide receiver next season, especially when he’s able to make plays like this:
On the defensive side, Demetrius Cooper has an opportunity to become the next big thing in the trenches. He’s recorded 14.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in three seasons.
Vayante Copeland could be a staple in the secondary next fall, if he stays healthy. He’s missed 17 games over the past two seasons but has been pretty good when he has been on the field. In seven games in 2016, Copeland tallied 36 tackles, broke up two passes and recorded an interception.
There are still some concerns, for sure.
Brian Lewerke has already been anointed as the No. 1 quarterback heading into spring practice by Dantonio, but there’s still a lot of questions surrounding that position that we won’t know until the season creeps a little closer.
Line play is a key concern, too, on both sides of the football. That’s likely where some of those up-and-comers could make the biggest difference.
But even with some of those question marks, are you betting against the Spartans to have a bounce back season?
Quick poll: raise your hand if you think Michigan State is doomed to have similar results in 2017?
Good, me neither.
Dantonio has been in this position before, though it’s been rare. And each time, Michigan State has bounced back to enjoy championship-caliber seasons.
The Spartans had a pair of 11-win seasons and claimed a B1G Championship in 2010 and 2011 after a 6-7 season in 2009 – the only other sub-.500 record Dantonio has had in his ten years in East Lansing.
From 2013-2015, Michigan State went 36-5, won two more conference titles and earned a berth in the College Football Playoff after an average 7-6 campaign in 2012.
The plunge in 2016 was from a higher peak and the landing was much more painful. There’s a slightly different approach, but Dantonio and the Spartans are picking up the pieces just the same.
Michigan State and 3-9 still doesn’t sound right, even from a younger, inexperienced team.
It shouldn’t take long for Dantonio and company to make that a thing of the past.