Versatility emphasized as spring game draws near

EAST LANSING, Mich. — When you think of a Mark Dantonio-coached team, not too often do words like “versatile,” “athletic” or even “fast” come to mind. But this year could be different.

It may have to be.

“We’re a little bit thin [in running backs],” said Dantonio before Friday’s practice. “Connor (Heyward) played there and LJ (Scott), obviously. But we’re a little bit thin there in terms of depth.”

With the Green vs. White Spring Game looming, one of the points of emphasis at practice has been filling in the obvious holes in the roster. As Dantonio pointed out, one of those areas is the running back position, which is suffering the loss of senior Gerald Holmes and would-be senior Madre London, who requested a transfer. But it doesn’t end there.

MSU’s receiving corps is much thinner than expected with the transfers of Hunter Rison and Trishton Jackson combined with the departure of Donnie Corley the previous season, who was released from the program following an alleged sexual assault. With lack of depth at positions that typically demand it, the Spartans have no choice but to mix and match different players at different positions. Dantonio claims to have done just that.

“Emmanuel Flowers [is] working at wide receiver,” said Dantonio. “He played wideout and defensive back in high school, and so we moved him over there. I think he’s found a place there, so he’s been fun to watch.”

Dantonio later mentioned moving Austin Andrews to running back. Flowers, the former cornerback, and Andrews, the former safety, do offer attributes that could prove valuable. Both are speedy with a defensive mindset. With that, it’s not hard to imagine that both players have to ability to quickly read a defense and react to it.

“He’s been solid,” said quarterback Brian Lewerke of Flowers. “I haven’t had a ton of reps with him just because he’s rolling with the other guys. But from what I’ve seen, he’s got good footwork. He’s quick. He can get off the ball well.”

“He definitely wants to learn,” said running back LJ Scott of Andrews. “He definitely wants to learn. You know, we talk outside of football. I tell him, ‘anything you need, hit me up…’ in him I see a lot of hard work.”

Flowers and Andrews help represent the entire theme of versatility that could define the 2018 team. After all, Lewerke provides a running element that MSU has not seen from a quarterback in years. Justin Layne, one of MSU’s top corners, originally committed as a receiver. Dantonio also said that he’s shifting multiple offensive linemen around to replace outgoing center Brian Allen.

But on top of returning players, this year’s recruiting class could be one of the most athletic in recent history, especially with the additions of defensive backs Kalon Gervin and Xavier Henderson. Both were multi-sport athletes in high school and could play multiple positions in college.

MSU is typically known for physicality and toughness. After all, this is a program that has won Big Ten championships and a Rose Bowl by physically beating up their opponents. While the Spartans will continue to pride themselves in that regard, this year could be a step in a different direction. Either way, Dantonio said they will take it one day at a time and continue to do what they do best.

“There’s a lot of retention,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys playing competitively… But there’s still a ways to go, and I think that’s how it is with any football team. And when you come and try to go past the bar that you set before, I think that’s always a challenge.”