EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State football’s first day of spring practice was a sunny, clear 58 degrees–which felt like it matched the feeling of a team that just turned a three-win 2016 into a 10-3 follow-up. Junior wideout Felton Davis III definitely knew how he felt coming into practice after breaking out in 2017.
“Man, it’s the life,” Davis told reporters at Wednesday’s media availability. “You never lose the chip on your shoulder, but last year, coming off a 3-9 season, we were kinda down, not knowing what we were capable of doing.”
The Spartans are definitely capable of repeating their performance from a year ago. Mark Dantonio’s team returns 19 of 22 starters from a team that beat Big Ten East rivals Michigan and Penn State, and following a blowout win in the postseason, expectations are once again at a very high level around the program.
“Our goal is always trying to get a little bit better,” Dantonio said. “Just a couple percent of the time and we’ll keep working. We’ve got a lot of young players coming back so we’re excited about it.”
With the spring game on the horizon on April 7, the initial roster for 2018’s team is missing a couple of names familiar to Spartan fans. Besides the transfers of multiple skill position players, safety Jalen Watts-Jackson was not listed on the spring roster, as well as defensive tackle Kyonta Stallworth and linebacker/safety TJ Harrell.
Watts-Jackson is the most famous name of the three, scoring the fabled game-winning touchdown against Michigan in 2015, but the would-be senior found his playing time limited to mainly special teams play over the next two years.
Stallworth’s major contribution of last year came in the game with Penn State in November, where he recorded six tackles. He was expected to see time as a backup defensive tackle. Harrell also played primarily on special teams, recording two tackles in 2017. Dantonio was coy on Wednesday when asked about the status of the trio.
“Just to be clear, we’ll see,” Dantonio said. “We’ve got to make some decisions.”
Something that was a major question mark heading into 2017 was the passing game for the MSU offense, and it was a test that Brian Lewerke and company passed with flying colors. Lewerke threw for 2,793 yards with 20 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last year, and added 559 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. However, over a long offseason, Lewerke made sure that he was on the same page with Davis, who was MSU’s leading receiver last season.
“We threw Tuesdays and Thursdays, pretty much every week,” Lewerke said Wednesday. “Sometimes on the weekends, just to get that rhythm back. We also watched the basic passing concepts that each receiver has to know, especially for the young guys, [to]get them to learn those is key.”
Despite losing both Hunter Rison and Trishton Jackson to transfers, MSU still returns its other top receivers from 2017, including the senior Davis, junior Darrell Stewart Jr., and sophomore Cody White.
“As a whole, we started off slow, but finished strong,” Davis said. “We can take that momentum into spring ball, with Brian, the offensive line, LJ [Scott], everybody’s clicking right now.”
Seven freshmen enrolled back in January and started practices with the team this week. Quarterback Theo Day, defensive back Xavier Henderson, cornerback Kalon Gervin, wide receiver Julian Major, receiver Javez Alexander and linebacker Edward Warinner all kicked off their Spartan careers officially on Wednesday afternoon.
It was announced that offensive lineman Dimitri Douglas would be out with an Achilles injury, and Dantonio mentioned running back commits Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson as players that might be able to replace the production of outgoing backups Gerald Holmes and Madre London.
Co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett left his position in January to join Willie Taggart at Florida State, which leaves Mike Tressel as the sole defensive playcaller after three years of sharing duties with Barnett. To replace Barnett and include another specialist coach as permitted by the NCAA, Dantonio hired Paul Haynes as a defensive backs coach and former Spartan Chuck Bullough for the defensive ends, as well as Don Treadwell for oversight purposes.
Impact’s Joey Ellis also contributed to this report.