WDBM Sports’ preview of the 2018 football season continues with a look at the Michigan State offensive line. This morning’s preview of the running backs can be found here
Michigan State’s largest offensive question centers on its offensive line in 2018. Dominant performances against the Big Ten’s bottom-feeders paved the way for excellent offensive games, but at its worst created little push in crucial matchups against Ohio State and Northwestern. 2017’s line was perhaps the one thing that kept the MSU offense from being consistently effective throughout the entire year.
This year, center Brian Allen is gone to the NFL draft, a fourth-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams. Outside of one Allen and graduated backup Dennis Finley, every other member of the two-deep is back among the offensive line. This group is mainly young, and project to return four of this year’s starters in 2019 as well.
What does that equal? Plenty of room for growth.
The competition between Matt Allen and Tyler Higby for the starting center job is the hot-button question around the offense in fall camp. While offensive line coach Mark Staten won’t hesitate to shuffle around linemen in-game, the 12-year coach just wants an answer by Aug. 31 and Utah State.
“I’d love for one guy to grab it,” Staten said at MSU media day. “We’ve got some guys battling for it right now. We’ll have some live periods before then, but it’ll be interesting to see after that day where we are.”
The sophomore Allen was the early favorite for the job and may remain so in the short-term, but only played in 46 snaps all year, most of them coming in the opener against Bowling Green. For his part, he was named a national top-10 center in his recruiting class according to 24/7 Sports.
Higby is the more experienced of the two, starting the first seven games at left guard last year. In the first half of the year, MSU averaged 4.4 yards per carry, boasting their most efficient outing of the season against Western Michigan with 296 yards on 49 carries, good for six yards per attempt. However, with the move to the meat of conference play, the second half saw rushing production drop off significantly to 3.4 yards a carry. However, Brian Allen’s performance in the Holiday Bowl showed the importance of solid center play in the MSU run game.
“Right now, there’s about seven or eight of us that could play today if we had a game today,” Higby said. “Those guys if we had a game tomorrow could come in and be successful and play at a high level…I slimmed down a little bit and gained a lot of muscle, I feel this is probably the best I’ve felt since I got here.”
Whoever ends up at center will likely see continued development from sophomore Kevin Jarvis at right guard. Usually, a true freshman playing on the offensive line is a very bad sign, but Jarvis managed competence last year if nothing else. Having an experienced Allen next to him had to help, but by the end of the season, Jarvis flashed some of the potential that could make him one of the conference’s best in a year or two.
“Right now, I’d say he’s one of our best ‘punchers’,” Staten said. “When he trusts his hands and knows where he’s going, he’s very physical. He generates a lot of power in his legs.”
At left guard, fifth-year senior David Beedle has stepped into the void of leader after the elder Allen’s departure. Pro Football Focus named him as one of the most efficient pass-blocking guards in the nation during the offseason, and the Clarkston, Mich. native was named a preseason All-Big Ten third teamer by Athlon. The similarities in leadership have already been noticed by the young guys along the line.
“He brings an energy,” sophomore tackle Luke Campbell said last week. “If it’s late in practice, it’s hot out, he brings the energy.”
Count Staten among those who need Beedle to step up as a leader.
“He has to,” Staten said. “That’s the thing I’m constantly on David about, it’s nice to see him when he’s in the back talking to the younger guys about certain things technique-wise.”
Clarkston junior Cole Chewins has started MSU’s last 16 games at left tackle and is another former walk-on that has worked his way into a starting role. A big step forward in Chewins’ mind will come in the run-blocking department, as MSU was well below conference and national average in terms of rushing opportunity rate. Opportunity rate is part of the advanced stats revolution in college football, a Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders-created stat that tracks the percentage of a team’s rushes that go more than five yards.
“Mainly, we’re just focused on being able to run the ball more effectively,” Chewins told WDBM last week. “Also being more physical, whether it’s finishing a block for one more second to open up a hole, we’re trying to help our teammates make more plays.”
Another young contributor last season was the sophomore Campbell, who started all but one game last year. Big Ten Network named him to their All-Freshman team, and a similar caveat that applied to Jarvis comes up when talking about Campbell’s youth. However, the Ohio native dispelled fears quickly and played the third-most snaps of any lineman last year.
As a whole, Brian Lewerke’s legs kept sack numbers down throughout the year, but No. 14 hit the grass on just 4.9 percent of attempts in 2017. Campbell knows that the goal for 2018’s unit is for Lewerke to keep his eyes downfield.
“When a quarterback scrambles, it’s almost like a screen for us,” Campbell said. “He’s out in the open, we just go hit whoever we can find.”
Behind those six names, competition is still pretty open for other backup roles. Redshirt freshman Blake Bueter is a longshot for the center role but could play either guard or center. Sophomore tackle AJ Arcuri missed the start of last year but remains an option at tackle. However, the only other player presumed to see major time is sophomore tackle Jordan Reid, who started the regular-season finale against Rutgers and will push Campbell for playing time. If numerous injuries ravage the numbers on the line, redshirt freshman Matt Carrick was mentioned as a developmental guy that could see time in blowouts.
Overall, the unit needs to progress in the run-blocking game in order for MSU’s offense to avoid predictability. While the sheer number of returners should mean easy sledding against the bottom half of the Big Ten and the non-conference slate, where the Spartans will really be tested is against their rivals. Michigan projects to have one of the top defenses in the nation (again), and Ohio State still has Nick Bosa off the edge, a player who burned Chewins on the left side in Columbus last year. The jury’s still out on whether or not they can keep future NFL draft picks at bay.
Matt Sokol heads into 2018 as the starter at tight end, but the fifth-year senior will face stiff competition from a pair of talented youngsters. 6-foot-5 sophomore Matt Dotson caught two passes in 2017 but has displayed good hands when the ball comes his way. The other option is freshman Trenton Gillison, a top-10 tight end recruit in the class of 2018 according to 247Sports. Gillison’s hands and speed make him a contender for first-year playing time if he adapts to the speed of the college game.
Chase Gianacakos is technically a tight end after converting from the guard position. He is deployed often on short-yardage situations and only the most deceptive of trick plays would lead to having a ball in the senior’s hands. Noah Davis is another option for pass-catching from the tight end spot after catching three passes. Sokol dropped a handful of crucial catches last year – sometimes in potential scoring situations – and if the most experienced option doesn’t play up to tight end coach Jim Bollman’s standards, there are young, exciting options available.