If there’s one thing Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio does well on a yearly basis, it’s develop talent.
Dantonio doesn’t sign many elite recruits like rivals Michigan or Ohio State and has landed only one 5-star recruit since 2013. Dantonio’s charm is that he makes the most of what he’s got. Entering his 10th season at the helm, Dantonio’s adaptability is the chief reason why the Spartans have won at least 10 games the past three years and made the College Football Playoff last season.
But 2016 presents a wide variety of challenges for Dantonio and his staff. Gone is the program’s winningest quarterback, Connor Cook, and the team returns just nine starters from last season’s Big Ten championship squad.
The Spartans could have a tough time in the early going offensively. Tyler O’Connor is the favorite to replace Cook at quarterback. O’Connor has some playing experience from last season when he subbed in for an injured Cook and was a big part of Michigan State’s 17-14 upset over Ohio State in Columbus. Without that win, the Spartans might not have gotten to the Big Ten championship game.
O’Connor will need some help from his weapons as well. R.J. Shelton is the only receiver returning who caught more than six passes last season and the hope is that a talented recruiting class can step in and contribute immediately in the passing game. Dantonio landed four of the nation’s best 50 wide receivers in his 2016 class, so help should be on the way. The best of the bunch is Donnie Corley, who is rated as the No. 108 player nationally and the No. 15 receiver in his class. The Spartans could also get production from fellow freshmen Cameron Chambers, Justin Layne and Trishton Jackson.
Michigan State has become accustomed to reloading the defense. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is gone and the only returning starter along the defensive line is Malik McDowell. The good news is Michigan State’s linebacking corps should be dominant, as Riley Bullogh and Jon Reschke are both back to lead the front seven. There is enough returning talent in the secondary to keep Michigan State’s defense near the best in the Big Ten.
But Dantonio better reload both sides of the ball quickly because the Big Ten East isn’t getting any easier. Ohio State loses 16 starters, but still has quarterback J.T. Barrett and plenty of talented players ready to step into starting roles. Michigan must find a productive quarterback, but otherwise has the best roster in the Big Ten.
Ruling out Dantonio’s Spartans is silly at this point, as his entire tenure with the program can be defined by attrition followed by reconstruction. But to defend his Big Ten championship, Dantonio must do what he does best: Reload rapidly.