Nov 26, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio leads his team out of the tunnel prior to the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan State 45-12. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O
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Michigan State football’s 2016 season came to an abrupt end against Penn State, but there are reasons to be excited about 2017.
The 2016 Michigan State football season has (thankfully) come to an end, but there’s reason to be excited about the future of the program. Not just the long-term future, but the 2017 season could be much more successful if the players continue to progress and an impressive rate.
It’s refreshing to see commitments from recruits remain solid and have those kids claim that they want to help turn things around after a poor season. That’s the type of close-knit, family program Mark Dantonio has build in East Lansing.
With plenty of talent returning and some veteran talent leaving after disappointing finishes to their careers, Michigan State will be better in 2017, by a wide margin.
Here’s why we should be excited about the immediate future of the program as Michigan State football’s 2017 season will be much brighter.
5. Potential coaching changes
I know Mark Dantonio has said that he doesn’t plan on making any changes, but that doesn’t mean he won’t change his mind after sitting down to review the 2016 season. Every aspect of the campaign was a failure outside of the win against Notre Dame.
The Spartans had one of the worst seasons in school history and Dantonio was being called out for his stubbornness regarding his coaching staff. People wanted to see a splash hire outside of the program and not in the head coach’s immediate friend circle. While I don’t think that will happen just yet, it might take place after National Signing Day.
It’s important to keep a staff intact until recruits are signed so none jump ship, but you can tell Coach D realizes the importance of immediate improvement.
Mark Staten is in position to potentially leave for the Northern Michigan head coaching job while Dave Warner and Mark Snyder should be on the hottest seats possible. I’d be shocked if Dantonio didn’t make at least one change outside of replacing Staten.
Oct 22, 2016; College Park, MD, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) led the offense against the Maryland Terrapins at Byrd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
4. Young, talented starting QB
There’s a reason to be excited about the quarterback position, especially since we are coming off the worst single season from a Spartan started under Dantonio.
Sure, Tyler O’Connor’s numbers weren’t that poor, completing 58 percent of his passes for 1,970 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine picks, but he struggled to command the offense. He looked out of place all season long and his lack of arm strength hurt MSU.
Not being able to put up points consistently was something that clearly changed from the Connor Cook era to 2016 with O’Connor.
However, the future is bright at the position. While there have been rumors about Malik Zaire coming to Michigan State from Notre Dame, the chances of that happening are becoming slimmer by the day. The coaching staff really likes what it has in redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and freshman Messiah deWeaver.
Those two will be duking it out in spring ball for the starting job and right now it looks like Lewerke will be the guy in 2017. He showed flashes of being the next three-year starter for the Spartans this season before breaking his leg against Michigan.
Don’t sleep on deWeaver, either. He might be the most talented quarterback on the roster while Lewerke is the most game-ready.
Nov 26, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) runs the ball past Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback John Reid (29) during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan State 45-12. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O
3. LJ Scott getting better and better
Missing out on that coveted 1,000-yard season probably at LJ Scott up for a day or two, but he’s now thinking about how he can improve and build on those numbers for next season. The sophomore running back had a breakout season, rushing for 994 yards and six touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry.
The coaching staff realized that the more they gave him the ball, the better he got. In fact, he averaged over six yards per carry when he finished games with at least 20 touches. He averaged less than five when he got the ball less than 20 times.
Scott went from a 699-yard rusher in 2015 as a true freshman with a 4.8 yards per carry average to a 994-yard rusher this season with improvements in every category but touchdowns. He finished with over 100 yards five times and four times in the final six games.
If he continues to get better like he is right now, the soon-to-be junior will rush for about 1,300 yards with 10-plus touchdowns with close to a 6.0 yards per carry average.
Many compared him to Le’Veon Bell when he came in as a true freshman, but it’s obvious that he might be ahead of schedule. Le’Veon was good in his three years at MSU and Scott has an opportunity to put up even better numbers — they are on an eerily similar path, though.
Sep 17, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Donnie Corley (9) celebrates after MSU defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 36-28 at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
2. Youth, with experience, at every position
Take a look at the depth chart. You will notice a striking difference between the beginning of the season and the end of it. Michigan State got younger at just about every position, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Actually, that’s a great thing.
Getting freshmen the experience necessary to turn them into second-year stars was crucial. Next season will be less about these young kids adjusting to the college level and more about them building on what they started in 2016.
At quarterback, Lewerke and deWeaver will be stars. At running back, Scott is the future and Gerald Holmes is close behind with Madre London. Receivers? Donnie Corley, Trishton Jackson, Felton Davis and soon-to-be Cam Chambers.
The offensive line is young and intriguing, too. Tyler Higby came on at the end of the year before his injury, Thiyo Lukusa looked solid and Cole Chewins played very well as a redshirt freshman.
Moreover, the defensive line will be brand new next year, filled with freshmen and sophomores that gained valuable experience this season. Josh King, Auston Robertson and Mike Panasiuk all earned plenty of snaps as freshmen. Raequan Williams looked like a future star as well as a redshirt frosh.
The linebackers will be led by Seniors Jon Reschke and Chris Frey, but Andrew Dowell, Tyriq Thompson, Joe Bachie, Byron Bullough and Brandon Randle will be solid. The defensive backs are also impressive and young with Justin Layne, Vayante Copeland (assuming he gets healthy and improves), Khari Willis, Grayson Miller, David Dowell, Tyson Smith, Josh Butler, Demetric Vance and Kenney Lyke, among many others.
Moral of the story: this team is extremely young, but the experience it gained this year will prepare it for the 2017 season and beyond better than anyone could have imagined.
Nov 19, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio walks the field prior to a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
1. Mark Dantonio improves after down years
Mark Dantonio has failed to make a bowl game just twice in his career as a head coach. The first came while he was at Cincinnati and the Bearcats went 4-7 in 2005. He turned things around the next season, improving them to 7-5 and leading them to a bowl before taking the head coaching job at MSU.
In his first year, the Spartans were just 7-6 and barely made a bowl. The next year, they improved to 9-3 in the regular season before losing their bowl game. In 2009, the expectations were sky-high with improvement each year under his leadership, but Michigan State took a step back and went 6-7 with a loss in the Alamo Bowl.
How did the head coach respond to his first disappointing season in East Lansing? He just led Michigan State to an 11-2 record the following year.
Michigan State went on to record another 11-win season the following year before going 7-6 with a mediocre quarterback (Andrew Maxwell) under center.
Dantonio responded in 2013 by leading Michigan State to its best season since the 1960s when it won multiple national titles, going 13-1 with a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
The head coach knows how to make offseason adjustments when things don’t quite go the Spartans’ way and he will do that this year. I’m not saying Michigan State will win 11 games next year, but they won’t miss a bowl game again.