It’s fine to have a relative strength in a football program. There aren’t many schools that consistently produce excellence on both offense and defense.
But man, to neglect offense as consistently as MSU has since Dantonio’s high-water mark in 2014 is to court disaster, and last year, that absolutely came to pass.
Fans of certain other schools might not view a 7-6 season as a disaster, but remember last year’s preseason expectations: in 2017, the Spartans won 10 games, and returned damn near every player on both sides of the ball from that team. They were experienced, they had had success, and there was no reason 2018 shouldn’t have been a banner year.
Instead, they dropped winnable game after winnable game as their defense smothered opponent after opponent and the offense stared up in the rain with its mouth open. MSU secured no conference title, no division title, really only one win of any significance (Penn State), while stumbling to an utterly unwatchable bowl game. In their 6 losses, MSU put the following point totals on the scoreboard:
After this season, head coach Mark Dantonio did not fire a single member of his offensive staff. Instead, he gave them all new jobs.
New offensive coordinator Brad Salem takes over playcalling and will also coach the running backs. On his watch as QB coach, Connor Cook had the best 3-year run in school history, but his more recent charges have had a more uneven track record.
Former offensive coordinator Dave Warner loses the coordinator label and returns to being quarterbacks coach, the job he held before replacing Dan Roushar as OC after the 2012 season.
Don Treadwell becomes the new wide receivers coach, after spending last year as the freshmen head coach, which I guess is a thing some schools do now. Old-timers may recall him from his previous stint as MSU’s OC, before leaving for a flameout stint as the head coach at Miami (OH).
Terry Samuel, longtime wide receiver coach, takes Treadwell’s old job as the freshmen head coach and as assistant defensive backs coach.
Mark Staten, former offensive line coach, is now responsible for both tight ends and the special teams.
And good ol’ Jim Bollman trades Staten jobs, moving into the offensive line coach spot.
Honestly, I’m underwhelmed. This was a team with a fully-charged defense and anemic offense, and part of this shakeup involves taking more of the more proven offensive assistant and flipping him to the defense. It also involves not only keeping the two guys whose units have consistently struggled for years - Staten and Bollman- and just flopping their responsibilities, which already involved a lot of collaboration anyway.
None of that stuff matters as much as whether Dantonio takes his hands off the offensive wheel to an extent. I’m not even sure I know what a Dave Warner offense actually looks like, because it’s never been a secret that Dantonio insists on an offense that looks a certain way - heavily run-slanted on standard downs, mostly under center, mostly multiple tight ends, mostly run at a glacial pace.
When all the appropriate pieces are in place, like they were in 2014, that style can still work. But it’s so much harder than to just bend a bit towards what you actually have. There’s philosophy, and then there’s dogma.
Salem’s structure in the spring game looked very different. A lot more shotgun, much fast paced, route combinations they haven’t previously used much...but we’ll see, when they whistle blows and it’s not their own teammates across the ball, if the MSU offense can spread its wings a bit more or if they’re still chained to an obsolete ideology.
If there is a more functional scheme in place, there’s no reason this offense shouldn’t be substantially better than it was in 2018.
QB Brian Lewerke returns, and will presumably be back to full health by the time the season starts. It remains to be seen if MSU’s staff allows him to get back to the scrambling that made him a capable dual-threat in 2017, but at the very least he should be able to functionally throw a ball again.
It would be hard to conceive of worse injury luck in the receiver group, and though Felton Davis III will be missed, the combo of Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White is a decent one-two out wide. TE Matt Sokol graduated; the top remaining tight ends, Matt Dotson and Trenton Gillison, are impressive-looking on paper and in warmups, but neither have been used much.
The line returns everyone other than frequently-injured G David Beedle, though given their struggles at run blocking in particular, one wonders if there’s no place for incoming 5* Devontae Dobbs. LJ Scott made the interesting decision to play in the Redbox Bowl and thereby burn his eligibility, leaving a rabble of tailbacks led by Connor Heyward to fight for carries.
What this offense loses, then, is a pretty good guard who was hurt a lot, a running back who also missed most of last season and was disappointing for most of his career, and a tight end who started two years without a memorable play to speak of.
And there, friends, is why I spent the entire offense article talking about the coaches, because they really are the story. This unit won’t be confused with Oklahoma or Clemson or the elite offense of your choice, but the talent is there to be a helluva lot better than they were last year. It’s all about whether the staff puts them in better positions to do that.
Michigan State’s offensive S&P+ ranking after the 2019 season will be:
This poll is closed
Worse than 100th