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An early look at the Michigan State Spartans

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NCAA Football: Redbox Bowl-Michigan State vs Oregon Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It’s never too early to write about next season!

With spring football completed for college programs, and with what feels like a long offseason until late July/early August, B5Q wanted to check on the Wisconsin Badgers’ 2019 opponents—with the help of some of our SB Nation friends.

Note: These previews will not be in the chronological order of the games, but we hope to get through all of them at some point before fall camp rolls around.

On Oct. 12 during Homecoming weekend, Wisconsin hosts the Michigan State Spartans inside Camp Randall Stadium in a cross-divisional showdown.

Ryan O’Bleness from The Only Colors graciously answered all of our questions about the Spartans’ potential this upcoming season.

What are your overall thoughts about Michigan State heading into the 2019 season?

I think most Michigan State fans agree with me when I say that there is a good mix of optimism with a good mix of question marks. The defense, which was No. 1 in the nation in rushing yards allowed and No. 10 in the nation in total yards allowed, should once again be an elite unit. The offense, however, was abysmal in 2018, and there aren’t a lot of personnel changes there to inspire much confidence moving forward. With that said, starting quarterback Brian Lewerke is now fully healthy after dealing with a shoulder injury most of last season, and head coach Mark Dantonio did shuffle around his coaching staff in hopes for better results. Most notably quarterbacks coach Brad Salem was promoted to offensive coordinator, while last year’s play-caller, Dave Warner, is now the quarterbacks coach. The offense didn’t really open up the playbook much in the spring game, so Spartans fans are waiting patiently to see if the unit will look any different in 2019.

How the Spartans are able to manage a brutal road schedule (away games at Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan), as well as an early non-conference tilt at home with Arizona State, is going to go a long way toward showing what this team is made of. The defense will keep the Spartans in just about every game, but if the offense doesn’t show up, we may be in for another mediocre-at-best year.

Who are the main players returning, and how could they help Michigan State next season?

The Spartans are returning the majority of starters on both sides of the football from last season. Of course, a healthy Lewerke at quarterback should make a difference. At wide receiver, Darrell Stewart, Cody White and Jalen Nailor are all capable of making highlight-reel plays, but I would like to see them get better separation in their route running. The backfield has a lot of options, but will more than likely be led by Connor Heyward who led the team in rushing yards in 2018 while filling in for the often-injured L.J. Scott. Although he’s not a returning player, true freshman Anthony Williams, Jr. is a running back to watch. As an early enrollee, he impressed the coaching staff all throughout spring ball and looked good in the spring game. Sophomore La’Darius Jefferson will also get some carries.

Defensively, the Spartans are going to be downright scary. Kenny Willekes, an absolute pass-rushing menace off of the edge, returns along with the leader in the middle, Joe Bachie and defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. This team is going to be extremely difficult to move the ball on, especially on the ground. In the secondary, the Spartans lost two key pieces (which I’ll get to next), but return shutdown cornerback Josiah Scott and ballhawking free safety David Dowell.

Who are the critical departures from 2018, and has anyone stepped up to be potential replacements?

As I alluded to above, the biggest hits are coming in the secondary. Justin Layne, a do-it-all cornerback, decided to forgo his senior season and enter the draft. He was selected in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Senior Josh Butler is the likely replacement for him, but redshirt freshman Kalon Gervin impressed in the spring game, as did sophomore Shakur Brown. Khari Willis, a strong safety and team captain graduated, and was drafted in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts. He will be replaced by sophomore Xavier Henderson, who is a great athlete with tremendous potential.

Offensively, the team is going to miss the big presence and wide catch radius of Felton Davis III, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent. Unfortunately, Davis’ senior season was cut short due to an Achilles injury and he only played in six games last year. The aforementioned Stewart is now the team’s clear No. 1 receiver, but it will be interesting to see who else steps up. I expect Cody White to have a good season. The team also lost offensive guard David Beedle to graduation, who also dealt with injuries the majority of last season. However, the team is returning plenty of starting experience on the offensive line—but that group struggled with injuries and consistency all season long. Other than that, the team lost mainly rotational players.

Who is your “way-too-early” breakout player-of-the-year candidate based on the spring?

I already mentioned Ant Williams as a name to watch. I expect him to make plays this season, but it’s hard to say how often he’ll be on the field. I think Williams is dangerous with his speed and elusiveness when he gets to the outside, but he isn’t afraid to run between the tackles or catch the ball out of the backfield, either. Another player who I’ve already mentioned that I think is ready to break out is Xavier Henderson at strong safety. He was a four-star recruit in 2018 and played in all 13 games as a true freshman. I like what I saw from him in limited snaps, so I am excited to see what he can do as a full-time starter.

What is your “way-too-early” prediction of the Michigan State at Wisconsin on Oct. 12? What is your prediction for Michigan State’s season?

I’m always nervous when Michigan State Plays Wisconsin, especially when MSU has to play at Camp Randall Stadium. I feel like both teams underachieved last season, and both still have a lot to prove. The Wisconsin offensive line and running back Jonathan Taylor against the stout Michigan State run defense is going to be a key matchup. As you mentioned, it’s “way too early,” and so much can change from now until Oct. 12, but for now I’m expecting a low-scoring, classic Big Ten brawl. I’ll say Michigan State wins by a score of something like 19-16.

As far as the season overall, I expect Michigan State to easily make a bowl game, and perhaps even be in play for a Big Ten Championship appearance late in the season, but I’m betting they’ll fall a little bit short of that goal. I am going to be relatively optimistic and say Michigan State goes 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the conference.