Dienhart: 5 things I learned at Michigan State fall practice

Dienhart: 5 things I learned at Michigan State fall practice

EAST LANSING, Mich. — This is an interesting season for Michigan State. This time last year when we visited, the Spartans were riding high coming off a Big Ten title and playoff appearance.

[ MORE: Fun takes from Michigan State practice ]

This year, Michigan State is dazed coming off a stupefying 3-9 season. It was a stunning plummet. MSU is unranked in the preseason coaches poll for the first time since 2013. Mark Dantonio wants to get the program back on track. And it starts now.

Here are five things I learned watching the Spartans practice on Saturday.

1. The offensive line has a lot to prove. The unit is well coached by Mark Staten. The staff likes left tackle Cole Chewins, who could develop into an all-conference-type of blocker in time. But at 6-8, 284, he still almost looks thin. Brian Allen is a savvy leader at center. He is one of the most valuable players on the team. Very physical. Tyler Higby and David Beedle are physical guards. The right tackle? Luke Campbell, a redshirt freshman. Is he ready?

2. The backfield is loaded. In fact, L.J. Scott may be flying under the radar a bit amid a Big Ten that is loaded with good ball carriers like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Ohio State’s Mike Weber, among others. It is almost impossible to bring down Scott with one arm, as he is a physical runner. He missed the 1,000-yard mark by six yards in 2016. He told me after practice today he was “embarrassed” to get so close and not clear the mark. Gerald Holmes and Madre London could probably start for a lot of teams. Each member of the trio is over 6-0 and 220 pounds. They should help keep each other fresh. Co-OC/RB coach Dave Warner told me he would like to get two of them on the field at once. He hates to have talent like this on the sideline. Holmes is being looked to as a leader.

3. This team may sink or swim based on how QB Brian Lewerke plays. The staff has confidence in him, but Lewerke has something to prove as a passer … and a leader. On this day, he made some nice throws, and missed some. This is a spot that Lewerke can grow into. He shows poise in the pocket and is calm. Talking to QB coach Brad Salem, he says Lewerke has improved on his reads and he throws receivers open. And he says he is a bit more athletic than some recent Spartan starting signal-callers, but he isn’t a vocal leader. Lewerke leads by example.

4. The receiving corps could be a strong point of the offense. The unit is well-coached by Terrence Samuel. Trishton Jackson, Darrell Stewart and Felton Davis III are nice options. And freshman Hunter Rison, the son of Andre, is a good-looking prospect. He made some nice grabs today. I also like Cam Chambers. These guys showed good hands on this day. And they will have to help out QB Brian Lewerke as he grows into the role. Also, keep an eye on the tight ends. Matt Sokol is the top option, but the staff likes true freshman Matt Dotson.

5. The famed “No Fly Zone” is under construction. I really wanted to get a look at true freshman corner Josiah Scott, but he didn’t practice today (ill). He enrolled early and has been turning heads. Mark Dantonio has compared his mental makeup with Darqueze Dennard. Heady stuff. Sophomore Justin Layne is looking good at a corner spot. The sophomore played some wideout last year but is locked into defense now. He is 6-3 and reminds of Tony Lippett. Josh Butler is another top option at corner along with Tyson Smith. Give these guys some time to grow. The top safeties are Grayson Miller and Khari Willis. Co-DC/DB coach Harlon Barnett says Matt Morrissey and David Dowell. Barnett will have these guys ready.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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