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B1G 2020: Michigan State’s New Offense

There’s some promise here, but many more questions than answers

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Michigan State v Wake Forest
Elijah Collins is one of the few known qualities for MSU’s offense.
Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The lion’s share of Spartan frustrations over the last two seasons arose from the offensive side of the ball. Thanks to a fetid combination of stale schemes, constant injuries, and, to be frank, some underperformance from the players, MSU’s offense constantly failed to take any pressure off the defense.

In most circumstances, experience is considered a strength, but having watched many of the same players attempting to execute the same unsuccessful concepts for multiple seasons, a fresh start probably isn’t the worst thing in the world. Mel Tucker did not retain any of Mark Dantonio’s assistants from the offensive side of the ball.

Inexperienced Passing Game:

The player who absorbed the most criticism (sometimes warranted, often unfair) for the offense’s poor play over the last couple seasons, QB Brian Lewerke, graduates. Had he been healthy his entire career, he likely would have started for three seasons and most of a fourth. Whatever his flaws, the depth chart behind him is dicey. Backup Rocky Lombardi (RJr) has all the remaining game experience, but he hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire. RSo Theo Day has played only a handful of snaps, RFr Peyton Thorne has not seen the field, and Fr Noah Kim’s recruiting pedigree does not suggest he’ll seize the starting job immediately.

Whoever wins the QB job will be working with a retooled receiver group. Darrell Stewart Jr., Cody White, and TE Matt Seybert accounted for 141 receptions, 1,903 yards, and 13 TDs between them and are all gone. Promising rising sophomore Julian Barnett is also reportedly switching to defense.

There are some interesting options out wide, though; top returning receiver Tre Mosley seemed to turn a corner late in the season, Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed was a freshman All-American, and Jalen Nailor has speed to burn, though he’s also been a bit fragile in his career so far. TE Trenton Gillison’s physical ability is tantalizing, so the new staff would do well to make full use of him.

Veteran Running Game:

Yes, I understand perfectly well the offensive line is also part of the passing game, but this is the easiest way to divide the playing groups.

Up front, MSU will have a highly experienced group, as G Tyler Higby was the only departure from the playing group last year (T Cole Chewins was injured and shelved the entire season). C Matt Allen, G Kevin Jarvis, T Jordan Reid, and G/T Luke Campbell all have multiple seasons of starting under their belts, and plenty of others got extended time last year. MSU’s problem will be assembling the best five from a group that, despite all that experience, has consistently underwhelmed, but the biggest problem that needs to be solved is finding a way to better keep this unit healthy. A new strength and conditioning regimen might just do a world of good.

There are also some interesting young players - when called upon last year, then-true freshman JD Duplain held his own, also-freshman C Nick Samac looked OK as well, and former 5* T Devontae Dobbs needs to have a part on this line sooner rather than later. It really felt like the old staff’s penchant for shuffling their line, even when not prompted by injury, held back the group’s on-field chemistry. Regardless of who ends up starting, Tucker’s offensive staff has to get better results up front.

The running back group is perhaps the most stable on the team, as Elijah Collins took the lead role early last season and didn’t look back. Connor Heyward, supplanted by Collins, entered the transfer portal but then returned. Rising sophomore Ant Williams showed some burst and receiving skills, but Collins is enough of a pass-catcher that he likely gets the large majority of the touches this year.

The New Scheme:

Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson accompanies Tucker in the move from Boulder, and despite getting a hefty pay raise, it’s fair to note the results in their one season at Colorado were underwhelming: the Buffaloes finished 10th in scoring in a down Pac-12 despite having dynamic WR Laviska Shenault and senior QB Steven Montez.

Before his year with Tucker at Colorado, Johnson’s previous coordinator experience includes one year at Minnesota (the lame duck Tracy Claeys year) and five years at Louisiana.

Formationally, Johnson’s past teams have looked pretty similar to what MSU was running last year, in their only season under Brad Salem - lots more shotgun than was typically the case under Dantonio, but generally with only one tight end instead of two. Colorado also deployed two running backs on occasion, something hardly ever done under Dantonio.

But though the formations might look similar to last season a fair amount of the time, the base plays emphatically will not. Even in last year’s modified playbook, Dantonio’s preferred base plays were power and ISO, man blocking plays; Johnson’s previous stops suggest that zone is now the order of the day, with a good deal more option than Dantonio’s MSU ever ran.

Finally, perhaps most excitingly, Johnson’s Colorado changed tempo from time to time - they were not up-tempo in their base offense, nor did they average an especially fast snap, but they were able to hit the gas occasionally to keep opponents off-balance.

About the only prediction I can sensibly make about how MSU’s personnel fits the new system is that an option-based offense is probably good news for Rocky Lombardi’s odds at being the starting QB. Lombardi has shown decent legs in his time on the field thus far, though the old staff’s tendency to telegraph their intentions when they sent him in (A QB RUN IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN) limited his effectiveness last year. Allowed to run a complete offense that features the QB run instead of being a one-trick pony brought in for only that thing, Lombardi’s prospects for success would seem much brighter.