MSU Football: Breaking Down the 2016 Offense

This is the third in a series of previews of Michigan State football. To read a breakdown of the Spartan defense, click here.

Last season, Michigan State planned to build on its record-breaking 2014 juggernaut offense by returning a Heisman-contending quarterback in Connor Cook, a stout offensive line and a future 1,000 yard receiver in Aaron Burbridge. Surprisingly, that was not the case at all. In contrast to 2014, MSU lost 115 yards per game, 83.9 rushing yards per game, and 13.2 points per game.

The veterans on the offensive line were expected to keep the ground game humming along and ease the transition for the young tailback trio of LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes, and Madre London. Mainly due to injuries, that plan fell apart. This forced the Spartans to become one-dimensional with the pass-happy Cook.

Including the postseason, the 2015 offense managed to only score 18.2 PPG against ranked teams. They also yielded six total turnovers in those five games. This is a cause for concern, especially since Michigan State’s daunting 2016 schedule features three Top 10 preseason squads, according to ESPN (No. 3 Michigan, No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 9 Ohio State).

Despite many question marks at marquee positions, there are several signs that suggest MSU will exceed expectations and possibly show flashes of the 2014 fireworks. Let’s see how the offense will stack up.


Who will fill the big shoes after losing the winningest quarterback in program history in Connor Cook? It will most likely be senior Tyler O’Connor or junior Damion Terry. Their shining moments both came in the Horseshoe last year, where they knocked off the 2014 national champion and snapped Ohio State’s 23-game win streak.

O’Connor led the charge in that historic victory, and the 6-foot-3 dual threat’s accuracy and good decision-making has given the Ohioan a decisive edge over the rest of his competitors. My main concern is how he will respond if he’s called upon to make 30 to 50 throws in a game. MSU gets the most out of Terry off of designed runs out of the shotgun formation, utilizing his quickness and exceptional vision. He is not a proven passer by any means, so it’s simple for the opposing defense to anticipate him running the ball when he enters the game. He needs to clean up his ball security issues, as he coughed up the pigskin a few times in the Green-White Spring game.

The other two quarterbacks in the mix are redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and true freshman Messiah deWeaver, who are likely to be the future faces of the MSU program. Lewerke has a cannon of an arm and has strong composure. On the other hand, deWeaver possesses great touch on his throws and pure mobility.

The last time Michigan State replaced a quarterback legend was in 2012 after Kirk Cousins graduated. The results were disastrous, as Cousins’ successor, Andrew Maxwell, guided the Spartans to a mediocre 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten) regular season record. Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem hopes that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Running Backs

The Spartans’ offense will go as far as the “three-headed monster” will take them. Madre London, who will be the early down back, is by far the fastest of the three. The ground game is all about patience, which is why he needs to work on waiting for his blockers to open up holes instead of running into the back of his linemen.

Gerald Holmes loves to play dirty, yet has a very clean game. The junior is polished in every way possible for a tailback: running, blocking, and catching. Expect the Flint native to keep on trucking over defenders in short yardage situations as a major red zone threat.

LJ Scott is the head of the three-headed monster crew. Several critics and fans are already comparing the sophomore to Spartan great Le’Veon Bell, with his unique combination of speed and power. If he can do a better job of limiting turnovers (three fumbles) and become a factor in the passing game, MSU might find themselves their first ever Heisman winner in the foreseeable future.

Delton Williams is emerging as a great turnaround story. After his off the field incident over a year ago, the senior is now a better person on and off the field. The new starting fullback is a 230-pound beast with an appetite of plowing over defenders. Could he surge as Trevon Pendleton 2.0?

Wide Receivers

This is one of the most uncertain units on the team. Wide receiver RJ Shelton and tight end Josiah Price are expected to have breakout senior years taking over for last year’s leading receiver in Aaron Burbridge, who posted 1,258 yards and an MSU season record of 85 receptions.

Shelton was recently nominated for the Paul Hornung award, given to the most versatile player in the country. The Wisconsin native became the best go-to receiver when Michigan State desperately needed to convert a third down or score a touchdown to put the game out of reach. His best clutch moments came against Rutgers, Indiana, and Nebraska. He is also lethal on jet sweeps, running from sideline to sideline as well as any player.

Price is arguably one of the best tight ends in the program’s history, recording the most touchdown catches by an MSU tight end with 16. The senior is an outstanding route runner while having the some of the softest hands in the nation. Aside from being reliable as a receiver, he’s also solid in run blocking and pass protection. It will be interesting to see how senior tight end Jamal Lyles will contribute. He might get reps with a fresh defensive line or maintain his role on the offense.

Keep an eye out for an abundant number of raw receivers to step up and deliver. Sophomore Felton Davis should be in the starting lineup with his impressive speed and vertical. Watch out for early enrollees Donnie Corley and Cam Chambers to jump onto the scene with their big play capability. These hyped up true freshmen are receiving plenty of praise from the coaching staff for their maturity and work ethic. Corley and Chambers are incredibly gifted with athleticism and that breakaway speed to take it to the house whenever they catch the ball. Don’t be surprised to see one or even both of them rotate in the starting lineup this season.

Offensive Line

The 2016 offensive line will either make or break the Spartans’ season. It will be no simple task to replace three studs from last year, including two All-Americans in Jack Conklin and Jack Allen. But MSU as always is up for the test.

The two returning starters are junior guard Brian Allen, as well as senior center Kodi Kieler. Both guys are excellent downfield blockers and they occasionally maneuver to the second level of the opposing defense. Despite reconstructing the offensive line for the upcoming season, Dennis Finley and Benny McGowan did an exceptional job last year as rookies. After Finley suffered a broken leg against Purdue, McGowan showcased his consistent play.

Conklin and Allen would let their playing do the talking, as they barely conceded sacks while also avoiding penalties. The dynamic duo really inspired and motivated the rest of the offensive linemen as they led by example time and time again. This was most notable against OSU when they manhandled Joey Bosa and company, resulting in over 200 rushing yards. Keep in mind that a deep MSU defensive line will bring out the best of the offensive tackles in fall camp, which should pay off during the games.

Final Thoughts

The 2016 offense will deal with growing pains, and it all starts with the quarterback battle. The sooner one of the quarterbacks solidifies himself as the starter, the better the team will be, especially before the September clash with Notre Dame. Expect O’Connor and Terry to share playing time the first few games, but O’Connor will eventually pull away as the starter and the offense will ride on his success.

The three-headed monster at tailback will all receive solid playing time with LJ Scott getting the bulk of the carries. I envision co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner having a balanced philosophy, more so with a run-oriented scheme. This will be very beneficial towards a growing offensive line. The injuries were truly a blessing in disguise last season, because amateurs McGowan and Finley were able to boost their skills due to gaining in-game experience and confidence.

The Spartans’ top priority is finding consistency with multiple playmakers. The team became too dependent on the Cook-Burbridge combo last year, which functioned as a large and successful portion of their aerial attack. True freshmen Corley and Chambers should get the job done with their terrific skillsets. Meanwhile, veterans Shelton and Price should be the top targets of the flourishing passing attack.

Michigan State has all the pieces in place to transform into a potent offense. They just need to cut down on the turnovers and mental miscues as well as execute at a high level. The Spartans should start many of their drives with solid field position, thanks to a loaded defense. They also need to invoke unpredictable play calling to keep the defense on their toes. If Sparty can find a successful formula of consistently building gradual rhythm and confidence, this will open up the Spartans’ playbook with several play calling possibilities awaiting them. This will enable the players to settle into their roles and become more comfortable with their responsibilities.