Michigan State has a lot of work to do if it wants to reclaim its reputation of being tough in the trenches.
The 2016 season saw a team plagued by injuries and departures slump to one of worst on the offensive and defensive lines. On the year, the Spartans finished with 0.9 sacks per game while allowing 2.3 themselves, and finished ninth in the Big Ten in rush defense.
It served as a wake-up call for a program and a fan base that had become accustomed to excellence on its front lines. From 2011-15, Michigan State finished as the No. 1 Big Ten rush defense four times. On the other side of the ball, its pass protection was excellent, finishing in the top three in the Big Ten three times.
The Spartans’ 3-9 season brought ample dissatisfaction with quarterback and defensive back play, and with good reason. But if Mark Dantonio’s offensive and defensive lines can’t get back to the solid play that helped bring the program to prominence, it will be awfully tough for those behind them to reach their potential.
Let’s take a look at who has left and who needs to step up on the lines, starting at spring practice, which begins Saturday.
Departures: Brandon Clemons, Kodi Kieler, Thiyo Lukusa, Miguel Machado, Benny McGowan
It will be a new-look offensive line next year after losing 34 of a possible 60 starts from 2016. Kieler and McGowan each started at three different spots along the line throughout the season. It may have been an inconsistent group, but it was experienced, something 2017’s offensive line won’t be.
Former walk-on tackle Cole Chewins will be thrust into a bigger role after starting the last three games at left tackle. Brian Allen will likely shift over to a full-time spot at center. Beyond that, who knows? Tyler Higby’s role depends on how he recovers from a broken ankle. David Beedle and Dennis Finley will likely duke it out for a tackle spot opened up by Thiyo Lukusa’s unexpected departure after his freshman season.
This is what spring practice is about: open competitions galore. We’ll soon see who steps up.
Departures: Brandon Clemons, Evan Jones, Malik McDowell, Kevin Williams
This side of the ball won’t be quite as decimated by departures, but it still loses a lot. McDowell, who would’ve played almost every snap if not for injuries, heads to the NFL Scouting Combine next week. When not on offense, Clemons stepped in at tackle. Jones and Williams filled roles on the line before giving way to the youth movement.
That movement gave Michigan State what should be valuable experience going into 2017. Mike Panasiuk looks primed to keep hold of his tackle spot, with Robert Bowers and Demetrious Cooper potentially on the outside. The nose tackle spot looks like sophomore-to-be Raequan Williams’ to lose. But there will be plenty more youth nipping at their heels, looking to take snaps away from them.