The soul searching for Mark Dantonio and the rest of the Michigan State Spartans started early this season. After finishing 3-9 in the wake of a College Football Playoff appearance, Dantonio wrapped up a disappointing year by saying he and his staff would have to find ways to change if they were going to fix the precipitous drop.
Changes won’t include any new faces on the coaching staff. All 10 Spartan coaches, many of whom have been with Dantonio for the past decade in East Lansing, will be back next fall. That doesn’t mean they'll be able to plod along with business as usual. If Michigan State is going to keep from permanently slipping out of the Big Ten’s upper crust, there are some major questions that needed to be answered before September. Here are a few that could determine how the Spartans fare in 2017.
1. Where will the Spartans find a pass rush?
No Power 5 team had fewer sacks than the 11 Michigan State posted this past season. A sturdy and menacing defensive front was a staple of successful Spartan teams during their rise under Dantonio. Losing three starters to graduation hurt. Losing a handful of their replacements through transfers made Michigan State weak in the trenches. A strong recruiting crop of freshmen got their hands dirty later in the season. Players such as Auston Robertson and Raequan Williams will have to take big leaps into leadership roles to return the line to a point of strength next fall. That doesn’t fit the typical Spartans mold of waiting your turn and learning the ropes from veterans, but it will be an important part of competing in the East Division.
2. What changes need to be made on offense?
Michigan State didn’t have the same mojo on offense without Connor Cook at quarterback, and the pair of All-America linemen who helped open up play-calling in the previous couple of years. Sticking to their strengths helped Michigan State in the past, but being slow to adjust to a new reality in 2016 added to a recipe for averaging 24 points per game (104th nationally).
Running back L.J. Scott should be the centerpiece of the offense next season. He’s a reliable, punishing workhorse who fits the mold for what Michigan State likes to do on offense. But if Scott alone isn’t going to spring leaks in opposing defenses, it’s essential for the staff to find new, creative ways to get the ball in space. Michigan State has recruited some impressive athletes in the past couple years, it’s on the coaches to find better ways to use them.
3. Is Brian Lewerke the guy to carry Michigan State at quarterback?
Dantonio ended his first news conference of the offseason by naming Lewerke as the front-runner at quarterback for next season's team. When healthy, he gives Michigan State the best chance to stretch its creativity on offense. Lewerke likely would have been the team’s starter throughout November had he not broken his leg in a loss to Michigan in late October.
Michigan State’s offense lost a lot of pieces after its Big Ten title run in 2015, but Cook was probably underappreciated outside of East Lansing for how much of an effect he had on the Spartans’ ability to score points. Lewerke -- who is expected to be healthy for spring practice -- doesn’t have to be Cook next season. He does, though, have to show the ability to command the offense and make plays when things break down. Michigan State needs a special player at quarterback to compete in the Big Ten, and so far they are betting that Lewerke is their best option.