MSU Football End-of-Year Grades by Position (Plus Next Year’s Outlook)
What a turnaround Mark Dantonio accomplished this year. Despite doubt (foolishly) coming from nearly every corner of the college football world, Coach D has righted the ship that overturned so suddenly to lead to last years abysmal 3-9 record. With a complete 180-degree turnaround, the 2017 team ended the regular season with a 9-3 record and logged the 10th win of the year, and Dantonio’s 100th with MSU in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
Nearly every position group on this year’s team exceeded preseason expectations, though there were certainly areas that needed improvement and left us fans wanting more. Regardless, expectations are high for the team overall heading into next season.
Brian Lewerke was, obviously, the only MSU QB to see significant snaps this year, as he was named the starter shortly following last season’s campaign and remained there throughout the entirety of this season. At times, he was brilliant, making spectacular throws through tight windows or keeping plays alive and moving the chains with his legs. Other times, however, he showed his youth with poor decision making and sometimes struggled to get going in tough situations. Overall, Lewerke gave us fans a lot to be excited about moving forward. He returns next year and will remain the starter, barring catastrophic injury. Expect him to take a step forward and compete as one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in the Big Ten. Damion Terry graduates and Messiah Deweaver has announced he will transfer, elevating Rocky Lombardi to the No. 2 quarterback, with incoming freshman Theo Day to take the No. 3 spot.
An up and down year for the Spartans’ running game was frustrating to say the least, but a 110 yard-effort in the Holiday Bowl put LJ Scott at nearly 900 yards on the season averaging a respectable 4.5 yards per carry. Throw in Madre London and Gerald Holmes, and the trio averaged a collective 4.1 yards per carry. Not outstanding by any means, but a serviceable number. Behind an offensive line that is expected to improve, Scott, who announced that he would return for his senior season immediately following the bowl, and his counterpart Madre London have a chance to do a quite a bit of damage in the Spartans’ ground game. Holmes is a senior and will be lost to graduation.
One of the team’s biggest question marks entering 2017, the receiver group delivered in a big way. After losing the team’s top three receivers, two to graduation, one to dismissal, the Spartans brought back only 22 catches total from the 2016 campaign. Felton Davis III and Cody White were the breakout stars, with 776 and 490 yards respectively, but Darrell Stewart and Hunter Rison showed they were capable of big plays in important moments. There were times that they struggled to create separation and get open for Lewerke, but given the fact that the group loses not a single player (barring any yet-unannounced transfers), expectations are high heading into the 2018 season.
Given the important role that Josiah Price played in MSU’s offense during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Matt Sokol and his counterparts in at the tight end position had big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, they left quite a bit to be desired at times. Part of this can be attributed to a lack of experience, as redshirt freshman Noah Davis and true freshman Matt Dotson saw snaps throughout the year. Others, however, boil down to a lack of execution. Sokol’s ability to catch the ball was brought in to question with a few notable drops, at least a couple of which would have gone for touchdowns or important first downs. True to a typical Mark Dantonio offense, though, they were largely sound blockers. Expect them to improve going forward, as they lose no one to graduation and the two freshman will have another offseason to learn and grow.
Grade: B –
The bulk of the shortcomings of this group were issues that could be foreseen entering the season, as a few of the players in the regular rotation still have yet to reach their ideal playing weight. As a result, the offensive line appeared to struggle in generating a push up front to support the rushing attack that Coach Dantonio prefers to employ. They were, however, generally very solid in pass protection and gave Lewerke the chance to make plays downfield. Give the younger guys another offseason with Coach Mannie, and maybe it’s easy to see why LJ Scott decided to come back for another year. Brian Allen graduates to likely pursue NFL aspirations, but all four of the other starters return for 2018.
Here is a group that, by and large, exceeded expectations this season. Losing two defensive ends that were expected to be significant contributors in Auston Robertson and Josh King, the Spartan’s pass rush was a huge question mark entering the year. In 2017, the group recorded 14 sacks and 34.5 total tackles for loss, en route to the top ten in both rushing defense and total defense. The interior lineman, in particular, led by Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk, showed flashes of elite, NFL-caliber talent and DE Kenny Willekes went from walk-on to third team All-Big Ten in one year. Only losing defensive end Demetrius Cooper to graduation, this is another group entering 2018 with high hopes. End Robert Bowers is also no longer with the program, according to recent announcement by Coach Dantonio, but he had not been seeing significant snaps during the year.
Joe Bachie clearly showed the MSU staff something to be excited about during the 2016 season, because he entered the 2017 season as the uncontested starter and middle linebacker. And, boy, did he deliver. Bachie started over older, more experienced players and recorded 100 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks with three interceptions and two forced fumbles to go along with it. The Spartans’ second leading tackler in Andrew Dowell returns for his senior year at outside linebacker, while Chris Frey departs due to graduation. Junior-to-be Tyriq Thompson is the likely candidate to replace Frey and Antjuan Simmons, who had a productive freshman year, should see more snaps as well.
The No Fly Zone of years past may be making a return to East Lansing. By and large, the defensive backs of the 2017 campaign played solid, sound football, though there were noticeable lapses in coverage at times. Josiah Scott played outstanding for a true freshman, starting every game, but did show his inexperience occasionally. Justin Layne came into his own as a converted receiver and safeties Khari Willis and David Dowell both played at or near All-Big Ten level football. There could be transfers in this position group yet to be announced, though that’s purely speculation at this point, but the Spartans will retain all of their key pieces in a unit that will likely spell trouble for opposing quarterbacks.
Matt Coghlin’s game-winning field goal as time expired against Penn State capped what amounted to a solid freshman campaign in which he converted every extra point he attempted and 79% of his field goals. Brett Scanlon, who handled the kickoff duties, seemed to struggle to find the end zone early in the year, but eventually appeared to put it together. Coghlin returns next year as a sophomore and will likely retain the place kicking duties, but it remains to be seen if he or someone else, such redshirt freshman-to-be Cole Hahn will kick off.
At times in 2017, Jake Hartbarger showed us just how valuable a good punter can be. In seven games, Hartbarger punted six or more times, including eleven in the monsoon in Ann Arbor against Michigan. Hartbarger was able to flip the field at some critical points in games and averaged 42 yards per punt on the year, with 28 of a total 69 dropped inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. He figures to continue to be a weapon that Dantonio won’t hesitate to employ when he wants to flip the field and control the game with defense.
It took some time for Dantonio and Co. to determine who exactly was going to be the mainstay at both punt and kick return. Throughout the season, four players were given opportunities at each with Connor Heyward appearing to solidify his spot at as a kick returner and Cody White as the punt returner. Once they were settled in, each managed the job fairly well, and will likely maintain those roles in 2018, unless a new face comes along and proves to be a valuable playmaker.
Any way you spin it, there is quite a bit to be excited about, if you’re a Spartan fan. With playmakers returning on both sides of the ball and very little experience lost to graduation, the majority of the starters will be back in 2018. It remains to be seen if anyone, in addition to Deweaver, will leave for another school, but Mark Dantonio and the 2018 Spartans will look to make a splash in the Big Ten again next season.
All statistics courtesy of the official MSU page: