As the years go by, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has not lost any steam, and is still as strong as ever. With that in mind we caught up with Michigan State journalist Dalton Shetler to get some inside intel on the Sparty football team. Dalton is the co-host of pre/postgame MSU football shows on Spartan Sports Network.
Q: Michigan State is 88-21 under Mark Dantonio when they outrush an opponent. How is the position looking for 2019?
A: Michigan State has a handful of names that could be potential ball carriers this season. LJ Scott had been the man in the backfield dating back to MSU’s Big Ten Championship in 2015 as he stretched across the goal line against Iowa. And for the first time since then, MSU will have to prepare for a full season without him. Although they did get a taste of that last year, due to Scott only playing in five games with an injury. In his absence, Connor Heyward gained some valuable in-game experience as MSU’s leading rusher last year, running for more than 500 yards and 5 TD’s. There also were opportunities for La’Darius Jefferson to get his feet wet with 78 carries during his freshman tenure, where you could see his athleticism. Then there are three younger players to keep an eye on: Elijah Collins, Anthony Williams and Brandon Wright. Honestly, it’s unclear who will emerge to be the leading ball carrier next season. As Coach Dantonio said during his Media Day Press Conference, “it’s going to be interesting to watch those guys in terms of how this plays out in summer camp.” What we do know is that Coach Dantonio has a belief that he stated last season in trying to run the ball at least 30 times a game, so somebody WILL be called upon. And with an offense that returns a total of nine starters this year that can (fingers crossed) stay healthy, it should give some good balance to the offense.”
Q: Brian Lewerke took a step back in 2018 (8 TD’s/11 INT’s) and was injured during part of the season, do you expect an uptick in production from him this year?
A: 2019 could be a huge season for Brian Lewerke. As mentioned, Lewerke had been dealing with an injury during the year that seemed to begin back in early-mid October, when Michigan State knocked off Penn State on the road in just the sixth game of the season. At that point in the year, Lewerke was completing 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,587 yards and all eight of his passing TD’s in 2018, after that point we really saw the effects of his injury. You add that onto that the fact that MSU had 5 different starting offensive line combinations in the first 6 games, losing their starting running back in game two and adjusting to missing one of their top targets in Cody White during that first half of the season, it was an uphill climb. Still, however, Lewerke is looking for a solid senior campaign and has assured us that he has plenty of confidence heading into 2019. Let’s also not forget that in 2017, we saw him become the first Spartan QB to throw for 2,500 yards or more while rushing for more than 500 yards in the same season. It will be interesting to watch if a healthy Brian Lewerke will showcase his legs again this upcoming season. We already talked about how this offense features nine returning starters, but we should also mention that it returns 203 receptions from a year ago compared to losing just 50, which should make Brian a very happy quarterback.
Q: Michigan State shuffled their offensive staff around this off-season, moving staff members to other positions. Do you feel this will be better for the team?
A: As you point out, Michigan State Football made some adjustments to the offensive coaching staff this offseason. Brad Salem became the offensive coordinator and running backs coach, after having been the quarterbacks coach the last 6 years. This is a familiar position to Salem, having served as offensive coordinator at Augustana College before becoming the Head Coach there in the mid 2000’s. Jim Bollman moves over as the offensive line coach where he has been before and had much success. Strictly as an offensive line coach, he has worked with nine first-team All-Americans, 13 first-team All-Big Ten players, 17 NFL Draft picks, 25 NFL linemen, which includes three Pro Bowlers and All-Pros. Mark Staten shifts to become tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. Coach Staten began his MSU coaching career from 2007-10 by coaching tight ends, developing the likes of Brent Celek, Kellen Davis, Garrett Celek, Dion Sims and Charlie Gantt. Don Treadwell had rejoined the staff last year as an assistant defensive backs coach, but this year he will be coaching the wide receivers. Yet again a familiar role as he served as the Spartans’ offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach from 2007-10, and he had also been the receivers coach from 2000-02 at Michigan State. During his time, he has coached the likes of Charles Rogers and the program’s all-time leading receiver, B.J. Cunningham. Finally, Dave Warner will be the quarterbacks coach this season, which is where it all started for him at Michigan State from 2007-12. In that span were a pair of great MSU quarterbacks in Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer. All in all, you can see that these changes have placed many of these coaches in positions that they have been in and been successful in before, which might just be the right formula for this team.
Q: What are realistic expectations for MSU in 2019?
A: The easiest and maybe truest answer is that we really have to just wait and see. Coming off a 7-6 season where there were so many injuries that decimated this team, some people just want to wait and see what the Spartans have. Of course, defensively Michigan State returns 8 starters from the nation’s top ranked rushing defense a year ago, which sees the likes of Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Willekes back with Joe Bachie, Raequan Williams, Josiah Scott and many more. 4 starters return on special teams, including place kicker Matt Coghlin who was perfect on PAT’s and hit 90% of his field goal tries from 49 yards and in. Punter Jake Hartbarger is back after he was injured in the second game of the year, the same game he boomed a 74-yard punt. After Hartbarger went down, there were four more Spartans that would wind up sharing punts throughout the rest of the season as the injury bug continued to bite. Needless to say, MSU is excited to have Hartbarger back. Then the offense still has many pieces that were so explosive just two seasons ago, and you have to wonder with a healthy season, what exactly its ceiling is. Overall, Michigan State returns 21 starters which is tied for the most of any program in the FBS, and that should go a long way for this upcoming year. However, the schedule doesn’t do MSU any favors. With road trips to Columbus and Madison in back-to-back weeks with another road trip scheduled to Ann Arbor later in the year, the Spartans will be entering hostile environments. Add on to that MSU will have two bye weeks in a matter of three weeks (surrounding the Penn State game), this schedule is just bizarre. With all of the factors in consideration, this team has the talent and firepower that even with a difficult road ahead, if everything lines up and this team reaches its potential, it would be hard to believe that the Spartans would not be competing for a Big Ten title. The one thing we do know is that if Michigan State does reach that mark, the Spartans will have earned it.
Q: Who is MSU’s best player on offense, and on defense?
A: This is a tough one to tackle, but if I had to pick a best player on offense I am going in the direction of Brian Lewerke. It’s always hard to compare across positions and the quarterback position is so valuable, plus, we have seen Lewerke do things in his sophomore season that many other Spartan quarterbacks have not achieved. When he is healthy and playing at his best, he is tough to stop. Although I do believe that Cody White is primed for a big season at receiver. Cody has played so well in his first two seasons when healthy, and with the absence of Felton Davis and his playmaking, White might have to shoulder some of that big play responsibility. Defensively this is nearly impossible to answer, but I do think your answer lies somewhere up front. You can’t go wrong picking Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams and/or Joe Bachie here. Joe Bachie led the team in tackles for the second straight year with 102, while also collecting 8.5 tackles for loss. Bachie also has been a leader of this football team the last couple of seasons and his voice might be just as valuable as his tackles. Raequan Williams had 53 tackles last season with 10.5 for loss, but what the stats don’t show is how he eats up interior linemen, springing other defenders loose if he doesn’t get the tackle himself. One of those defenders who shakes loose often will actually get my vote here, Kenny Willekes. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year had 78 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks a year ago. This former walk-on is primed for another huge season heckling players in the backfield, especially with so many players returning on that defensive front.