Dienhart: Michigan State Spartans' offseason to-do list
Michigan State is the defending Big Ten champ, coming off the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance. The 2015 season marked the fifth time in the last six years that MSU won double-digit games. And the program has played in major bowls each of the last three seasons.
No doubt, a strong foundation has been laid as Mark Dantonio enters his 10th season in East Lansing. But there is significant work to do before the season kicks off with a visit from Furman.
Here is my look at Michigan State’s to-do list.
1. Pick a QB. Mark Dantonio hasn’t named a starting QB and won’t until camp. He likes the competition. But most feel Tyler O’Connor will be the guy who replaces Connor Cook. O’Connor looked good this spring. And he showed last year that the big-game spotlight doesn’t scare him, as he started and led the Spartans to a huge win at Ohio State. Brian Lewerke has potential, but he may not be ready for this gig yet.
2. Shore up the offensive line. The unit took some hits, as star left tackle Jack Conklin turned pro early and was a first-round pick. Guard Donovan Clark also is gone and was a draft pick. And how will All-American center Jack Allen be replaced? The staff took some big steps in answering those questions in the spring, as the line looked pretty good in the spring game. Dennis Finley is a key guy, as he may be the next left tackle if he is over a broken leg suffered last year. Kodi Kieler also needs to be an anchor. Others like Brian Allen, Brandon Clemons, Miguel Machado and Benny McGowan, among others, need to step up.
3. Keep developing those young wideouts. Michigan State has two exciting true freshman receivers in Donnie Corley and Cam Chambers, who each took part in spring drills after arriving early. They need to be as good as advertised to help add juice to the down-field passing game that has lost Aaron Burbridge, the Big Ten receiver of the year in 2015. A vertical passing game would help open room for a running game that has something to prove working behind a rebuilt line. R.J. Shelton needs to be a vet who leads the way. Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart must keep developing this summer, too.
4. Amp up the defensive line. Some big-time attrition here, as the Spartans lost three starters in Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath from the No. 11 rush defense in the nation (122.2 ypg). Still, Mark Dantonio thinks this could be his best defense yet. Malik McDowell will anchor the line and could play a multitude of positions, as he is on a mission to be the nation’s best lineman. Nose tackle Damon Knox and end Demetrius Cooper are vets who should excel. Cooper was third on the team with five sacks last year playing behind Calhoun primarily as a third-down rusher. Keep an eye on youngsters Raequan Williams and Josh King.
5. Tighten up special teams. MSU was the only team in the Big Ten to allow two touchdowns on punt returns in 2015, and the punt return team was equally as bad, finishing 120th in the nation. Overall, the Spartans’ special teams were inadequate, and Dantonio has made it clear he’s not going to put up with it. Some good news: Punter Jake Hartbarger should continue to improve. Kicker Michael Geiger also returns and proved clutch with his last-second field goal to lift Michigan State to a 17-14 win at Ohio State. Plus, he hit a 47-yarder in the 16-13 Big Ten championship game win against Iowa.