2020 Season Preview: Michigan State Spartans

By Matthew Filipovits on October 7, 2020 at 8:00 am
Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons celebrates a tackle against Indiana during the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. Antjuan Simmons
© Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC
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The Michigan State Spartans had an offseason of change with Mark Dantonio retiring in February after thirteen seasons and the most wins in program history.

They've handed the reigns to Mel Tucker, who bounces over after one losing season at Colorado. Like Dantonio, Tucker is a tough, defensive-minded head coach, so the Spartan's identity should remain mostly the same. But if they want to get back to being a playoff-caliber team, they'll need a major overhaul of the offense.

Michigan State at a Glance

Head Coach Mel Tucker (1st season; 5-7 overall, 0-0 with Michigan State)
2019 Record 7-6, 4-5 (5th in Big Ten West)
2019 Postseason Pinstripe Bowl (27-21 win over Wake Forest)
Biggest Losses QB Brian Lewerke, WR Cody White, WR Darrell Stewart Jr., DE Kenny Willekes, LB Joe Bachie, CB Josiah Scott, DT Raequan Williams
Biggest Returnees QB Rocky Lombardi, RB Elijah Collins, TE Matt Dotson, LB Antjuan Simmons, S Xavier Henderson
Summary The Spartans are going through a soft reset under Mel Tucker but will need to show a lot of growth on offense to be a real threat in the East.
Matchup with PSU The Nittany Lions are looking to get a winning streak underway against the Spartans after years of struggles. The Spartans will visit Happy Valley in the regular-season finale, meaning the Land Grant Trophy is technically a Christmas present for one lucky team.

Offense

Michigan State's offense was atrocious last year, thanks to outdated playcalling and an injury-plagued offensive line. New offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has been calling plays on the college level for nearly a decade, but he has his work cut out for him.

Brian Lewerke has finally graduated, leaving Rocky Lombardi to take over as the Spartans' signal-caller. The rising junior started three games back in 2018 while Lewerke was hurt, going 2-1 in those games. He doesn't have a lot of experience around him, with true sophomore Tre Mosley being the team's leading returning receiver. He caught 21 balls for 216 yards in six games a year ago, taking the Jahan Dotson-route to significant playing time. 

Elijah Collins is back after rushing for nearly 1000 yards in his freshman season. He's a bruising back who nobody likes to tackle. Thanks to all those injuries last year, he'll be running behind an offensive line that returns 10 guys with some starting experience. Expect this team to live and die by their ground game.

Defense

Mark Dantonio was a defensive wizard and 2019 may have been his best work, with the Spartans ranking No. 16 nationally in rushing defense and No. 37 in passing yards allowed, despite the unit being on the field a ridiculous amount.

Antjuan Simmons, the Spartan's leading tackler last year, is back for his senior season. The linebacker loves to play behind the line of scrimmage, logging 15 tackles for loss last year. He's a versatile playmaker that the defensive staff will use as a moveable chess piece all year long. He'll play behind a defensive front that loses some phenomenal players but picked up a huge boost when defensive end Jacob Panasuik opted back into the season. The senior will be a third-year starter and is as good stopping the run as he is rushing the passer.

The secondary is a tale of two positions, with safety very well off thanks to Xavier Henderson. He's ranked second on the team in tackles a year ago and is the leading returning defender in both interceptions and passes defended. Cornerback is a major question mark, so much so that Julian Barnett, who would have been the Spartans second-leading returning receiver, flipped from wide receiver to cornerback to help things out. He's a phenomenal athlete but he has his work cut out for him.

Special Teams

Like Penn State, the Spartans used different kickers for field goals and kickoffs, which should continue under Mel Tucker. Cole Hahn had a touchback rate of only 17% last year, so there will be opportunities for returners. Evan Morris could also get some chances on kickoffs. Matt Coghlin had his ups and downs on field goals, ultimately finishing the season 22/32 with a long of 47. They'll need to find a new punter and a new threat in the return game, but have options for both.

2020 Outlook

The Spartans were spinning their wheels these last few years under Mark Dantonio, so a change is a welcome sight. Mel Tucker is an exciting hire because he represents something different, but he's still a major unknown as a head coach. With all the staff turnover and a bizarre offseason, this will be a season of growing pains in East Lansing.

Rocky Lombardi has waited a long time for this opportunity and while he has a great back and an experienced offensive line, he needs to find a handful of pass catchers he can trust. Even so, Jay Johnson's offense ranked No. 83 nationally last year in total offense in a Pac-12 that is nowhere near as defensively talented as the Big Ten. It's fair to say their ceiling will be around that mark.

The defense should again be strong but they'll need the offense to have a few long drives a game so they won't have to be on the field as much. The Spartan front-seven is as intimidating as any in the Big Ten, with Panasuik and Simmons as no-doubt professional caliber-players. The secondary is going to struggle, but they do have dudes who can make plays.

The Spartans may have hit their ceiling under Mark Dantonio and it's going to take some time to build the program back up. They won't be a threat in the Big Ten East race in 2020 and probably won't pull any major upsets, but they do have an exciting young core and this season should help establish the building blocks for the next few seasons.

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