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2017 Season Outlook

Aug. 3, 2017

With preseason camp in full swing this week, msuspartans.com takes a position-by-position look at the 2017 Spartans.

SPARTAN FOOTBALL NOTES
• Michigan State is in the midst of its second-winningest decade in school history and is looking to get back to its winning ways under 11th-year head coach Mark Dantonio in 2017.

• The Spartans are 68-25 (.731) since 2010 and during that span, MSU has claimed three Big Ten Championships (2010, 2013, 2015) and three Big Ten Division titles (2011, 2013, 2015). In addition, the Spartans recorded a school-record four consecutive bowl victories (2012 Outback against No. 18 Georgia, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings against TCU, 2014 Rose Bowl Game against No. 5 Stanford, 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 4 Baylor), which also tied a Big Ten record. MSU was the only school to finish in the top-six of the national polls from 2013-15 (No. 3 in 2013, No. 5 in 2014, No. 6 in 2015).

• The 68 wins this decade are second most in the Big Ten and tied for 11th most in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, while the 39 wins since 2013 are tied for third in the Big Ten and tied for eighth most in the FBS. The 36 wins from 2013-15 marked the winningest three-year stretch in the history of the program. MSU's highest winning percentage by decade is currently the 1950s (.766, 70-21-1 record).

• Last season, Michigan State featured one of the youngest teams in the nation. Due to a combination of youth and injuries, MSU had a different starting lineup in every game of the season on both offense and defense. Several Spartans stepped into new and expanded roles, as the offense and defense combined to feature 26 players who either started for the first time or were in their first full-time starting role. In addition, MSU's 21 first-time starters ranked tied for 10th most in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in 2016. The Spartans welcome back 39 letterwinners in 2017 and are counting on several of those young players who gained valuable experience early in their careers last season to step up this fall.

 

 

• The Spartans have had sustained success in the Big Ten Conference under Dantonio. MSU has won two of the past four Big Ten Championships (2013, 2015) and three overall this decade, also claiming a championship in 2010. The Spartans own victories in 26 of their last 36 games against Big Ten opponents (including the Big Ten Championship Game), dating back to the 2012 regular-season finale, including 19 wins by double-figures.

• Since 2008, MSU has recorded 50 Big Ten regular-season victories, third most of any team in the conference. The Spartans produced back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010-11 for the first time in program history, claimed a share of the Big Ten Championship in 2010, won the inaugural Big Ten Legends Divisions title in 2011, won the 2013 Big Ten Championship and 2014 Rose Bowl Game, won the 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic and captured the 2015 East Division and Big Ten Championships.

HEAD COACH Mark Dantonio NOTES
• Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio owns a 90-42 (.682) record in 10 seasons as head coach of the Spartans. Dantonio has won the most Big Ten Championships (three) and bowl games (four) of any Spartan head coach and also ranks first with nine bowl appearances. He is the only active Big Ten coach to win multiple Big Ten Championships (2010, 2013, 2015), claim a victory in the Rose Bowl (2014), and coach in the College Football Playoff (2015).

• The second-winningest coach in school history with 90 victories, trailing only Hall of Famer Duffy Daugherty (109), Dantonio also ranks first in program history in conference winning percentage (.654, 53-28 record, minimum 10 games), second in home wins (53) and AP Top 25 victories (17), tied for second in Big Ten wins (53) and AP Top 25 finishes (six), and fifth in overall winning percentage (.682). His .682 winning percentage currently ranks fifth best at MSU. He won his 71st game at MSU on Oct. 25, 2014, against Michigan to move into second place all-time in victories in school history (record: Duffy Daugherty, 109). Dantonio won his 100th career game as a head coach on Oct. 17, 2015, at Michigan Stadium as the Spartans rallied to defeat the Wolverines, 27-23, on a 38-yard fumble return as time expired. His career record stands at 108-59 (.647) in 13 seasons.

• Dantonio led the Spartans to the 2015 Big Ten Championship with a 16-13 victory over previously undefeated and fourth-ranked Iowa. It marked Dantonio's third Big Ten Championship (2010, 2013, 2015), establishing a school record (previous: Daugherty and George Perles with two each).

• Dantonio became the first coach in Big Ten history to record five 11-win seasons in a six-year span (11 in 2010; 11 in 2011; 13 in 2013, 11 in 2014; 12 in 2015), and his five 11-win seasons are tied with Joe Paterno of Penn State and Urban Meyer of Ohio State for the second most in Big Ten history (Jim Tressel with six; Paterno with five at Penn State as Big Ten member). Prior to Dantonio's arrival, MSU had not recorded an 11-win season in its history, and had just two 10-win seasons (1965, 1999).

• A two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year (2010, 2013), Dantonio has led Michigan State to Top 25 finishes in six of his 10 seasons (2008: No. 24 in both polls; 2010: No. 14 in both polls; 2011: No. 10 USA TODAY/No. 11 AP; 2013: No. 3 in both polls; 2014: No. 5 in both polls; and 2015: No. 6 in both polls). His six AP Top-25 finishes are tied for second most in school history ("Biggie" Munn, who coached from 1947-53, had six consecutive from 1948-53). Daugherty's teams posted seven Top-25 finishes during his 19-year tenure from 1954-72.

• From his first day on the job, Dantonio has pledged to support student-athletes as they pursue excellence, both in the classroom and on the playing field. In his first 10 seasons, a total of 188 players have earned their undergraduate degrees. In addition, 136 Spartans have earned Academic All-Big Ten honors, including seven Academic All-America selections. Michigan State has placed three student-athletes in the National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Class in the past six years. • Dantonio is one of just four Spartan head coaches to coach in at least 100 games at MSU and ranks third in Spartan history with 132 games coached at Michigan State (Duffy Daugherty: 183; George Perles: 139; Dantonio: 132; Charlie Bachman: 114).

• Dantonio is the third-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten (Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: 18th season; Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: 11th season) and eighth-longest in the FBS.

QUICK LOOK AT THE 2017 SCHEDULE
• Michigan State will face nine teams on its 2017 schedule that appeared in postseason bowl games last season, including eight Big Ten opponents.

• The Spartans will open the 2017 season with four consecutive home games for the first time since 2002 and for only the fifth time in school history (1918: 5 straight, 1924: 4, 1928: 5, 2002: 5; 2017: 4).

• Michigan State will play a total of seven home games in 2017, including three nonconference contests (Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Notre Dame) and four Big Ten games (Iowa, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland).

• Michigan State's 2017 season opener is set for Saturday, Sept. 2 against Bowling Green in Spartan Stadium. MSU head coach Mark Dantonio is 10-0 in home openers at MSU and the Spartans' 18-game winning streak in home openers is tied for third longest in the nation. MSU is 2-0 all-time against the Falcons, including a 28-17 win during Dantonio's first season as head coach in East Lansing in 2007.

• Michigan State will host Notre Dame for the first time since 2012 on Sept. 23 in Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium last season, 36-18. Dantonio is 4-4 in his tenure against Notre Dame, including a 2-1 record in East Lansing.

• The Spartans open Big Ten play against Iowa on Sept. 30 in Spartan Stadium. MSU also hosts Indiana (Oct. 21), Penn State (Nov. 4) and Maryland (Nov. 18) in Big Ten action, while traveling to Michigan (Oct. 7), Minnesota (Oct. 14), Northwestern (Oct. 27), Ohio State (Nov. 11) and Rutgers (Nov. 25).

DANTONIO MAINTAINS CONTINUITY, RESTRUCTURES STAFF
• MSU head coach Mark Dantonio has repeatedly stressed the importance of continuity on his coaching staff as one of the main reasons for Michigan State's success during his tenure. Four of MSU's nine assistant coaches have been at MSU since Dantonio's arrival in 2007 (associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Harlon Barnett, assistant head coach/offensive line coach Mark Staten, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Mike Tressel, co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Dave Warner). Those four also coached under Dantonio at Cincinnati. Dantonio, Barnett, Staten and Tressel have been on the same staff since 2004. MSU is one of only three schools (Navy, Northwestern) in the FBS to have at least five coaches on the same staff for the past 10 years.

• In addition, quarterbacks coach Brad Salem is in his eighth year on the staff, wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel is in his seventh year, and defensive tackles coach Ron Burton is in his fifth year. Co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Jim Bollman, who is also in his fifth season, has coached with Dantonio on three previous occasions: Youngstown State (1986-90), Michigan State (1995-97) and Ohio State (2001-03). Defensive ends coach/special teams coordinator Mark Sndyer is in his third year on the staff at MSU.

• Dantonio announced in June 2017 the promotion of Mark Staten to assistant head coach/recruiting coordinator and Sheldon White as the executive director of player personnel and recruiting. Staten, who is entering his 11th season at Michigan State and his 14th as a full-time assistant under Dantonio, has been the program's offensive line coach since 2011. He previously served as the program's recruiting coordinator and tight ends/tackles coach from 2007-10. In addition to his new duties, Staten will remain the offensive line coach.

• White, who worked for 19 years in the front office with the Detroit Lions, including Vice President of Pro Personnel for six years and the role of interim general manager in 2015, was hired in 2016 as a program consultant. As executive director of player personnel, White's primary responsibilities will include coordinating the evaluation of all current players on the active roster, providing detailed evaluations to the coaching staff. He will also play a lead role in organizing the recruiting efforts of the program.

• In addition, Harlon Barnett, previously the program's assistant head coach, was appointed associate head coach.

PERSONNEL BRIEFING: OFFENSE

QUARTERBACKS:

Letterwinners returning (2):
#14 Brian Lewerke (1L, So., 6-3, 212, Phoenix, Ariz./Pinnacle)
(4 games/2 starts, 31-of-57 passing (.544), 381 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT)

#6 Damion Terry (3L, Sr.-5, 6-4, 220, Erie, Pa./Cathedral Prep)
(7 games/1 start, 22-of-46 passing (.478), 253 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT)

Starters lost (1):
Tyler O'Connor
(11 games/10 starts*, 154-of-262 passing (.588), 1,970 yards, 16 TDs, 9 INTs)
* one at wide receiver; 2016 starters noted in CAPS

Sophomore Brian Lewerke will look to take over the reins as the starting quarterback in 2017 after a strong spring practice in which he took a majority of the reps. Lewerke started twice as a redshirt freshman in 2016 (vs. Northwestern on Oct. 15 and at Maryland on Oct. 22) and saw action in four games before suffering a broken tibia in the fourth quarter of the Michigan game on Oct. 29. He recovered in time to fully participate in all 15 spring practices and enters preseason camp as the leading contender to start at quarterback, according to head coach Mark Dantonio. Lewerke brings a strong arm into the pocket and has elusive running ability, racking up 149 yards on 21 carries (7.1 avg.) in his four games last season. He will look to build upon his connections with several young Spartan receivers as the passing game will feature youth but plenty of talent in 2017.

Fifth-year senior Damion Terry will also be in the mix to compete for playing time at quarterback. Terry, who has battled injuries throughout his career, has played in 22 games in a back-up role, completing 36-of-72 passes (.500) for 356 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He did start the season finale at No. 8 Penn State in 2016 and guided the Spartans to a first-half lead, but left the game with a head injury. In 2015, Terry, along with Tyler O'Connor, split time at quarterback during MSU's 17-14 win over No. 2 Ohio State that helped propel the Spartans to the Big Ten Championship.

Promising redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, an early enrollee in 2016, sat out spring practice with a back injury but will be fully healthy for preseason camp, while true freshman Rocky Lombardi and graduate transfer Mickey Macius (Austin Peay) give the Spartans depth at quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS/FULLBACKS

Letterwinners returning (3):
#24 RB Gerald Holmes (3L, Sr.-5, 6-1, 231, Flint, Mich./Carman-Ainsworth)
(12 games/2 starts, 91 carries, 431 yards, 4.7 avg., 5 TDs, 35.9 ypg.)

#28 RB Madre London (2L, Jr., 6-1, 218, Little Rock, Ark./St. Thomas Aquinas)
(10 games, 28 carries, 120 yards, 4.3 avg., 2 TDs, 12.0 ypg.)

#3 RB LJ Scott (2L, Jr., 6-1, 229, Hubbard, Ohio/Hubbard)
(12 games/10 starts, 184 carries, 994 yards, 5.4 avg., 6 TDs, 82.8 ypg.)

Starters lost (1):
FB Prescott Line (11 games/4 starts, 5 carries, 12 yards, 2.4 avg., 0 TDs, 1.1 ypg.)

The Spartans are once again loaded at tailback with three experienced ball carriers -- senior Gerald Holmes and juniors Madre London and LJ Scott -- who have combined for nearly 3,300 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns the past two seasons.

Scott, a third-team All-Big Ten selection who started 10 games last year, led the team in nearly every rushing category last season, including yards (994), carries (184), touchdowns (6), yards per game (82.8) and yards per carry (5.4). The preseason Maxwell and Doak Walker Award candidate has rushed for 1,693 yards in his first two seasons -- the fifth most by a Spartan through their sophomore year. Scott's two best games last season came against arguably two of the nation's top defenses, as he rushed for a career-high 160 yards against No. 2 Ohio State and 139 yards vs. second-ranked Michigan. He hit his stride midway through the year, rushing for more than 100 yards in four of the final six games (109.7 ypg.), and had five 100-yard games overall.

As a freshman, Scott emerged as a go-to threat in the backfield and scored the game-winning touchdown in the 2015 Big Ten Championship game against Iowa in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter that sealed a trip to the College Football Playoff for the Spartans. Although he did not participate in spring practice while recovering from offseason surgery, Scott is rested and ready to go this fall for the Spartans.

Holmes has proven to be a durable option for the Spartans the past two years, collecting 540 yards and a team-high eight rushing touchdowns on 110 carries as a sophomore in 2015 and 431 yards on 91 attempts with five TDs in 2016.

London started the first six games of his career as a redshirt freshman in 2015 before an ankle injury sidelined him for three games. He ranked third on the team that season with 500 rushing yards on 119 carries and had 28 carries for 120 yards as a sophomore.

At fullback, the Spartans lost starter Prescott Line, a graduate transfer from SMU, along with four-year letterwinner and converted tailback Delton Williams. Junior Collin Lucas, who earned a scholarship in the spring, looks to fill the role at fullback.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Letterwinners returning (4):
#18 Felton Davis III (2L, Jr., 6-4, 195, Richmond, Va./Highland Springs)
(12 games/2 starts, 12 catches, 150 yards, 12.5 avg., 1 TD, 12.5 ypg.)

#86 Trishton Jackson (1L, So., 6-1, 179, West Bloomfield, Mich./West Bloomfield)
(9 games, 5 catches, 89 yards, 17.8 avg., 1 TD, 9.9 ypg.)

#15 Brandon Sowards (2L, Jr., 6-0, 193, Wyandotte, Mich./Roosevelt, 12 games)

#25 Darrell Stewart Jr. (1L, So., 6-2, 210, Houston, Texas/Nimitz)
(10 games/1 start, 3 catches, 29 yards, 9.7 avg., 0 TDs, 2.9 ypg.)

Starters lost (2):
Monty Madaris (11 games/11 starts, 24 catches, 310 yards, 12.9 avg., 1 TD, 28.2 ypg.)

R.J. Shelton (12 games/12 starts, 53 catches, 789 yards, 14.9 avg., 5 TDs, 65.8 ypg.)

Although the Spartans lost both starters to graduation in Monty Madaris and 2016 team MVP R.J. Shelton, the wide receiver unit is full of potential and optimism heading into 2017.

Two-year letterwinner Felton Davis III is looking for a breakthrough season after gaining valuable experience in MSU's offensive system the past two years. Davis had 12 catches for 150 yards and one TD last season, and as a true freshman in 2015, played in seven games, including receptions in both the Big Ten Championship Game and College Football Playoff Semifinal.

Sophomore Trishton Jackson, who caught five passes for 89 yards in nine games as a true freshman in 2016, blossomed in the spring, culminating with his eight-catch, 168-yard performance in the Green-White spring game.

Fellow sophomore Darrell Stewart Jr. will also look to have an expanded role in the offense after recording three receptions for 29 yards last season.

Redshirt freshman Cam Chambers should also be a major contributor in the passing game. An early enrollee in 2016, Chambers redshirted last fall but made his presence felt in the spring game with five catches for 54 yards.

Sophomore Justin Layne, who began his Spartan career as a wide receiver before switching to cornerback midway through the year, could also see action on the offensive side of the ball after spending time there during spring practice (three catches for 70 yards in spring game).

Two-year letterwinner Brandon Sowards, who returned punts last season, adds depth at flanker, while early enrollee Hunter Rison could also see time on the field as a true freshman.

TIGHT ENDS

Letterwinners returning (1):
#81 Matt Sokol (2L, Jr., 6-6, 250, Rochester, Mich./Adams)
(12 games, 2 catches, 26 yards, 13.0 avg., 0 TDs, 2.2 ypg.)

Starters lost (1):
Josiah Price (12 games/10 starts, 38 catches, 387 yards, 10.2 avg., 5 TDs, 32.2 ypg.)

Junior Matt Sokol is the heir apparent at tight end following the departure of veteran Josiah Price, who set a Michigan State record for tight ends with 21 career touchdown receptions. The Spartans must also replace four-year letterwinner Jamal Lyles at the position. Sokol has primarily been used on special teams his first two seasons in East Lansing, but spent all spring as the starter and is looking to continue the Spartan tradition of strong play at tight end.

Redshirt freshman Noah Davis will also see time after displaying athleticism during his redshirt season. Early enrollee Jack Camper, fifth-year senior Hussien Kadry and sophomore Matt Seybert provide depth at the position.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Letterwinners returning (5):
#66 C/OG Brian Allen (3L, Sr., 6-2, 302, Hinsdale, Ill./Hinsdale, 12 games/12 starts)

#59 OG David Beedle (2L, Jr., 6-5, 329, Clarkston, Mich./Clarkston, 11 games/5 starts)

#61 OT Cole Chewins (1L, So., 6-8, 284, Clarkston, Mich./Clarkson, 12 games/3 starts)

#71 OG Chase Gianacakos (2L, Jr., 6-6, 296, St. Charles, Ill./St. Charles North, 10 games)

#70 OG TYLER HIGBY (1L, 6-5, 293, So., Houston, Texas/Kinkaid School, 10 games/6 starts)

Starters lost (3*):
OG Brandon Clemons* (12 games/6 starts at right guard)

OL Kodi Kieler (11 games/11 starts)

OT Miguel Machado* (12 games/8 starts)

OG Benny McGowan (12 games/9 starts)

* Machado split time at right tackle with Kodi Kieler; Clemons split time at right guard with Brian Allen.

Michigan State's offensive line is brimming with potential from several promising young players, but is unquestionably anchored by senior center Brian Allen. The most experienced lineman on the roster, Allen enters his final season having started in 15 consecutive games, the longest active streak on the team. The three-year letterwinner and two-time second-team All-Big Ten selection has played in 38 career games, including 25 starts at three different positions (16 at left guard, five at right guard, four at center). The versatile lineman will begin 2017 at center, where he is already nominated for the Rimington Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's most outstanding center. He will be looked to all season long to lead and mentor the offensive line.

Junior David Beedle cracked the starting lineup last season at left tackle for the first four games, but will make the move inside to right guard this year. Beedle also saw some action at guard last season and spent all of his time there during spring practice, where he figures to stabilize the right side of the line.

At left guard, sophomore Tyler Higby entered the starting lineup midway through the season for six consecutive games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the win over Rutgers. He gained valuable experience with more than 400 snaps at guard and is expected to make significant improvement in his second season as a starter.

Sophomore Cole Chewins, who started the final three games at left tackle against Rutgers, Ohio State and Penn State as a redshirt freshman in 2016, returns to the starting lineup for the Spartans. A former walk-on, Chewins is looking to follow in the footsteps of another former walk-on, Jack Conklin, who started at left tackle for three years (2013-15) before jumping to the NFL and earning AP All-Pro honors as a rookie in 2016 with the Titans. Chewins grew up fast, playing more than 300 snaps on the offensive line as a redshirt freshman, and will be counted on as one of the leaders of the group in 2017. On the right side at tackle, redshirt freshman Luke Campbell appears to be ready for a starting role in his first season on the field. Campbell won the starting job coming out of spring practice and heads into preseason camp looking to solidify his hold on the position.

Fifth-year senior Dennis Finley, who has starting experience dating back to the 2015 season, will provide depth at left tackle, while redshirt freshman AJ Arcuri will back-up the right side. Junior Chase Gianacakos will provide veteran experience at guard, along with Nick Padla, Casey Schreiner and Jeremy Schram. Redshirt freshman Matt Allen, younger brother of Brian, could also see time on the line.

PERSONNEL BRIEFING: DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE

Letterwinners returning (7):
#52 DE Dillon Alexander (1L, Jr., 6-4, 247, Forsyth, Ga./Lambert)
(3 games, 5 tackles, 1 TFL)

#91 DE Robert Bowers (1L, Jr., 6-5, 249, Columbus, Ohio/Walnut Ridge)
(7 games/3 starts, 12 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks)

#98 DE Demetrius Cooper (3L, Sr.-5, 6-5, 249, Chicago, Ill./Percy L. Julian)
(12 games/11 starts, 23 tackles, 6 TFLs, 2.5 sacks)

#72 DT Mike Panasiuk (1L, So., 6-4, 294, Roselle, Ill./Lake Park West)
(12 games/3 starts, 14 tackles, 0.5 TFLs)

#41 DT Gerald Owens (1L, Jr., 6-2, 312, Thorofare, N.J./West Deptford)
(6 games, 2 tackles)

#58 DT Devyn Salmon (1L, Sr.-5, 6-2, 327, Plant City, Fla./Plant City, 4 games)

#99 DT Raequan Williams (1L, So., 6-4, 300, Chicago, Ill./DePaul College Prep)
(11 games/3 starts, 28 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks)

Starters lost (3):
DE Evan Jones (8 games/5 starts, 15 tackles, 1 sacks)

NT Malik McDowell (9 games/8 starts, 34 tackles, 7 TFLs, 1.5 sacks)

DT Kevin Williams (12 games/8 starts, 25 tackles)

Several young players on the defensive line gained valuable experience last year, and the Spartans are looking for those game reps to vault the group into a successful season in 2017. Although technically the group lost three starters from last year, four players return with starting experience.

Sophomores Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams, who both started the final three games of the season together, will patrol the interior of the line after showing promise as first-year players in 2016. Williams earned the team's most improved player award on defense and finished with 28 tackles, including five for losses and two sacks.

Panasiuk, a powerful player standing 6-4 and 294 pounds, recorded half of his season total in tackles in his second career start vs. No. 2 Ohio State with seven stops. He showed significant improvement toward the end of his true freshman season to garner the team's most outstanding underclass defensive lineman award, and his playing time should only increase in just his second season.

Redshirt freshman Naquan Jones, a highly regarded prospect out of high school, is expected to see time in a back-up role. MSU will also be counting on the development of fifth-year senior Devyn Salmon, junior Gerald Owens and sophomore Kyonta Stallworth at defensive tackle. Salmon and Stallworth are both converted offensive linemen, while Owens earned his first letter last season after playing in six games.

The Spartans will also be featuring some new faces at defensive end. Sophomore Kenny Willekes and junior Dillon Alexander, both former walk-ons, earned scholarships in the spring and will be counted on for increased production in pressuring the quarterback. Although Willekes played in just one game as a redshirt freshman, he earned a starting spot coming out of spring practice and displayed his potential with a game-high eight tackles in the Green-White spring game. Alexander, who saw action in just the final three games last year, made his presence felt against No. 2 Ohio State after collecting three tackles, including a 1-yard loss, while also recovering a fumble.

Fifth-year senior Demetrius Cooper started in 11 games as a junior and provides experience at the position, along with junior Robert Bowers, who played in seven games and started the final three to earn his first letter in 2016.

Redshirt freshman Brandon Randle will make the transition from linebacker to defensive end in preseason camp, and sophomore Justice Alexander and redshirt freshmen Mufi Hill-Hunt and Drew Beesley provide depth at the position. The Spartans also welcome three incoming freshmen, Lashawn Paulino-Bell, Jacub Panasiuk and DeAri Todd, to the defensive line.

LINEBACKERS:

Letterwinners returning (6):
#35 Joe Bachie (1L, So., 6-2, 233, Brook Park, Ohio/Beara-Midpark)
(6 games, 12 tackles, 2 TFLs)

#38 Byron Bullough (2L, Jr., 6-1, 228, Traverse City, Mich./St. Francis)
(7 games, 5 tackles)

#5 Andrew Dowell (2L, So., 6-1, 218, North Ridgeville, Ohio/St. Edward)
(12 games/8 starts, 67 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT)

#23 Chris Frey (3L, Sr., 6-2, 238, Upper Arlington, Ohio/Upper Arlington)
(12 games/12 starts, 96 tackles, 4 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 1 FF)

#49 Shane Jones (3L, Sr.-5, 6-1, 236, Cincinnati, Ohio/Archbishop Moeller)
(12 games/3 starts, 28 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1 sack)

#17 Tyriq Thompson (1L, So., 6-1, 239, Detroit, Mich./Martin Luther King) (11 games, 6 tackles)

Starters lost (1):
Riley Bullough (9 games/9 starts, 76 tackles, 6.5 TFLs)

The linebackers, although featuring just one senior starter in Chris Frey, are still the most experienced unit on the defense heading into 2017.

Frey returns for his second year as the starting strongside linebacker after recording a career and team-high 96 tackles (8.0 avg.) last season. The honorable mention All-Big Ten choice, who was the only player to start every game on defense for the Spartans in 2016, also shared the team lead with seven quarterback hurries and had four tackles for loss. Not only will Frey be relied upon for his production, but the Spartans are also counting on his leadership to carry the defense. In 39 career games, Frey has 138 tackles, including nine tackles for loss and three sacks.

Junior Andrew Dowell started eight times at Star linebacker (weakside) last season and collected 67 tackles, good for fourth on the team, while playing in every game. He will also be looked to for increased production in his third season with the Spartans.

Although just a sophomore, Joe Bachie has impressed the coaching staff with his athleticism and leadership skills and enters preseason camp as the starting middle linebacker. Bachie sat out the first six games in 2016, but gained game experience in the second half of the season, which should pay dividends during his sophomore year. In his collegiate debut at Maryland, he recorded seven tackles and played a majority of the snaps at middle linebacker. An early enrollee in 2016, Bachie blossomed during his second spring practice this year and has the potential to be a three-year starter in the middle of the Spartan defense.

Fifth-year senior Shane Jones, who has four career starts under his belt and has played in 33 career games, will also compete for playing time at Mike linebacker, along with junior Byron Bullough. Sophomore Tyriq Thompson and fifth-year senior Sean Harrington provide depth on the outside.

SECONDARY

Letterwinners returning (9):
#19 Josh Butler (1L, So., 6-0, 186, So., Mesquite, Texas/West Mesquite)
(11 games, 7 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks)

#28 S David Dowell (1L, So., 6-1, 191, North Ridgeville, Ohio/St. Edward)
(10 games, 10 tackles, 1 FR)

#31 CB T.J. Harrell (2L, Jr., 6-0, 198, Tampa, Fla./Tampa Catholic)
(11 games, 8 tackles; played linebacker/special teams in 2016)

S #44 Grayson Miller (2L, Jr., 6-3, 208, Georgetown, Ky./Scott)
(10 games/2 starts, 20 tackles, 2 PBUs)

#2 Justin Layne* (1L, So., 6-3, 180, Cleveland, Ohio)
(9 games/5 starts, 18 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 PBU)

S #10 Matt Morrissey (2L, Jr., 6-3, 209, Lincolnshire, Ill./Adlai E. Stevenson)
(10 games/1 start, 20 tackles, 1 PBU)

CB #15 Tyson Smith (2L, Jr., 5-11, 170, Southfield, Mich./Orchard Lake St. Mary's)
(8 games/4 starts, 13 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 4 PBUs)

S #20 Jalen Watts-Jackson (Jr., 5-11, 184, Detroit, Mich./Orchard Lake St. Mary's)
(9 games, 5 tackles)

S #27 Khari Willis (Jr., 6-0, 215, Jackson, Mich./Lumen Christi)
(11 games/1 start, 30 tackles, 2 PBUs, 1 FR)

Starters lost (4):
CB VAYANTE COPELAND* (7 games/5 starts, 36 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBUs)

S Demetrious Cox (10 games/10 starts, 55 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 5 PBUs)

S Montae Nicholson (11 games/10 starts, 86 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 1 FR)

CB DARIAN HICKS* (10 games/10 starts, 30 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs, 8 PBUs)

* Counting three cornerbacks as starters last season.

Even though the Spartans lost four players with starting experience in the secondary, including starting safeties in Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson, along with four-year cornerback Darian Hicks, Michigan State does return five players that have earned starting assignments during their careers.

The Spartans are young but filled with promise at cornerback. Sophomore Justin Layne just started to begin tapping into his potential during his freshman year after transitioning from wide receiver to the defensive side of the ball midway through the season. After appearing for the first time at cornerback in game five against BYU, he started the next week against Northwestern, and returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown. The lengthy 6-3, 180-pound native of Cleveland, Ohio, ended up starting five of the last seven games and begins his second year having solidified a starting position in 2017.

On the opposite side, true freshman and early enrollee Josiah Scott made an immediate impression on the coaching staff during spring practice and vaulted up the depth chart all the way to a projected starter entering preseason camp. Scott displayed his skills during the Green-White spring game, tying for a game-high eight tackles while making a key interception in the fourth quarter that helped seal the win for the defense.

Junior Tyson Smith, who had to sit out spring practice for medical reasons, also could provide a veteran presence at cornerback. A two-year letterwinner, Smith has five career starts under his belt, including four as a sophomore in 2016. Junior T.J. Harrell saw action at cornerback in the spring and can also play weakside linebacker, while sophomore Josh Butler will push for playing time after showing improvement during the spring.

In the back end at safety, a trio of juniors with starting experience -- Grayson Miller, Matt Morrissey and Khari Willis -- will lead the group this fall. Miller and Willis both started together their freshman season in the win at Michigan in 2015, and gained valuable experience their first two years with a combined nine starts between them. Now, they will be expected to make the next step and provide leadership to a young secondary. Morrissey, who recorded a career-high eight tackles in his first career start at Illinois last season, has played in 22 career games heading into 2017. Junior Jalen Watts-Jackson also returns, along with sophomore David Dowell, who played 50 snaps at safety during his redshirt freshman season. Redshirt freshman Austin Andrews made the transition from cornerback to safety in the spring.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Placekicker/Kickoff Specialist: The Spartans are looking to replace four-year starter Michael Geiger, who finished his career ranked first in school history in extra points (189), second in scoring (357 points) and fourth in field goals (56). There will be plenty of competition in preseason camp for the starting position, as MSU features four placekickers on its roster. Redshirt freshman Matt Coghlin and fifth-year senior Brett Scanlon split the duties during spring practice, and they will be joined by incoming freshmen Cole Hahn and Jack McKenna.

Punter: Junior Jake Hartbarger returns for his third season as a starter. Hartbarger features a powerful leg and already has 24 punts of 50-plus yards in his career, while placing 37 percent of his punts (41-of-111) inside the 20. He ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting as a freshman (42.7 avg.) and sixth as a sophomore (40.9 avg.). Hartbarger currently ranks eighth in the MSU record book with his 41.8-yard career average.

Long snapper: Sophomore Collin Caflisch played in every game last season as the long snapper for the Spartans and returns for his second year as the starter in 2017.

Kick Returner: Several Spartans saw action at kick returner during spring practice, including sophomore Darrell Stewart Jr., who had five returns for 107 yards (21.4 avg.) in 2016. R.J. Shelton, a four-year returner, graduated as the second-leading kick returner in school history with 1,855 career yards.

Punt Returner: Junior Brandon Sowards led the Spartans with 15 returns for 94 yards in his first season as the starting punt returner in 2016, including a career-long 20-yard return at Illinois.

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