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Observations & Questions: Michigan State Personnel Breakdown

Notes from watching all 12 MSU games

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

OFFENSE

Five years ago, I previewed Michigan St in one of the first football articles I ever published. During that summer of staring too closely at my screen, I developed a blocked tear duct that forced me to put the project on hold for a week. Had I been struck blind again this winter reviewing MSU’s offense, I would have considered it a mercy.

A number of explanations have been floated for the Spartans’ poor offensive output this season: quarterback regression, poor playcalling, ceaseless injuries, misused tight ends, a turnstile offensive line. In my opinion, the correct answer is all of the above. I don’t believe there’s any one thing that can be fixed to return MSU to being a top-30 offense as they were in 2014/15 when Oregon last played them.

Schematically, this is a single-back WCO-style offense that’s running more or less the same playbook as when I last studied them. They want to run to set up the pass, and shift into a heavy rotation of short and intermediate routes on 2nd and 3rd downs. I’ll post a more extensive film study breakdown with video analysis on Sunday morning; today we’re looking at the personnel.

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Quarterbacks - #14 QB Lewerke is the returning starter from last year. He’s got a big arm and good mobility, and is one of the tougher QBs I’ve seen in terms of taking hits and not flinching under pocket pressure. He suffered a shoulder injury at some point in the sixth game of the season and yet continued to play for about two and a half games after that, which makes breaking down his stats a bit tricky.

However, just looking at the first five games when he was fully healthy, had a more-or-less intact receiving corps, and faced pretty mediocre passing defenses, I think the injury situation just exacerbated problems that already existed. My tally sheet shows some kind of QB error on a third of all his dropbacks in those five games -- an inaccurate throw unforced by the defense, a contested pass while not seeing an open receiver, getting happy feet and leaving the pocket early, etc. -- and while he hit some pretty big passes to get his YPA average up to 2017 levels, on a per-play basis the passing offense was fairly inefficient.

The wheels really fell off the passing game when backup #12 QB Lombardi took over. On every metric I use he’s less effective than Lewerke, and on top of that he never had MSU’s most dynamic receiver to throw to. There’s a few dynamite throws on his sheet but overall his accuracy and decision-making is a downgrade.

Michigan State v Maryland Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Wide Receivers - I like this unit quite a bit. In terms of clutch play, having #25 WR Stewart, #7 WR White, and #21 Chambers available down the stretch was probably the most important thing to keeping this offense afloat during Lombardi’s tenure - they’ve got excellent hands and know how to get open on the easy short and intermediate routes it came to rely on. I also liked #8 WR Nailor and thought he should have been used more than just on the sweep runs he was called on most for. #16 WR Sowards played in the most games and while he has the most questionable hands and speed of the corps, he was still a pretty reliable option when injuries had thinned the corps out substantially.

I’d trace a pretty big chunk of this offense’s problems to the season-ending injury to #18 WR Davis after six very productive games. He looked like a future NFL talent to me - tall, fast, great catch radius, and the ability to physically dominate smaller DBs … he really affected how defenses structured their coverage. While pretty good, none of the remaining receivers are transformative in the way that Davis was.

Running Backs - The returning starter, #3 RB Scott, only played in four games and while I was happy to learn he’s healthy for the bowl game, I don’t feel I’ve got a good handle on his capabilities. The offensive line doesn’t create much in the way of big holes to run through so the most important trait that Scott and primary backup #11 RB Heyward bring is a solid amount of yards after contact - I have both of them on my tally sheet as turning what would have been failed runs into successful ones by powering through the first defender at a pretty high rate. That can’t be said for the other backups, most notably #15 RB Jefferson, who showed some flashes of talent but also a lot of freshman mistakes. It’s hard for me to say what any of their explosive run or top end speed potential is, because the blocking never really gave them those opportunities.

At times the injury situation at WR got bad enough that Heyward was lining up at slot receiver, where I thought he played fairly well, and I also like his hands coming out of the backfield, although those plays were underutilized. I only saw Scott targeted a handful of times and couldn’t say how he is at that.

Fullbacks and Tight Ends - I wasn’t as impressed with these units and I think their role in limiting the offense has been underappreciated in the media. Starting #40 FB Lucas was suspended for a few games and I thought his backup #49 FB Rosenthal actually played better, but neither have great numbers in their blocking effectiveness and this offense uses a lot less I-formation runs than they did when I reviewed them five years ago - on a lot of plays I felt their presence was more out of a vestigial sense that Big Ten run games are supposed to have a fullback than any actual performance benefit.

Tight ends were a dilemma. #81 TE Sokol is the most well rounded - he’s used on a majority of plays in blocking and decent at it if not great, and also can release downfield as a receiver. #89 TE Dotson is also used sometimes as a receiver, but his blocking is a big dropoff from Sokol’s. #94 TE Gianacakos is a more effective blocker, but never goes downfield to catch. Altogether, I don’t think this unit (plus the FBs) had anywhere near the blocking or receiving productivity they needed to in order to justify taking up two or three potential receiving options on practically every play. When the QB and WR injury situation got pretty dire I was expecting to see a lot more TE use for quick dumpoffs to the big guys, but this never materialized … instead we saw RBs and even a cornerback pressed into service.

Offensive Line - Now we get to the real bafflement of this offense. Not counting a few goalline unbalanced sets, MSU played twenty-eight different offensive line combinations over the course of the year. No doubt this was partially caused by some unfortunate injuries, but in my opinion the amount of rotation we saw far exceeded what injuries could explain. Ten different lineman saw significant playing time, and on almost every other drive MSU was trying out a new configuration. Multiple players switched between either side of the line, between tackle and guard, and #70 OL Higby played center, left tackle, and left guard before the end of September.

I believe this constant rotation was a result of desperately searching for a combination that worked, and never finding it. None of these guys have a great success rate on my tally sheet - the best is #64 C Allen, though his snaps were limited by injury to some of the weaker defenses, and the least effective were guys who started the year, #75 OG Jarvis and #59 OG Beedle. #55 RT Reid got the most snaps and fortunately his effectiveness was decent, but I think he’s a bit undersized for the position and if his footwork wasn’t perfect the failure was more catastrophic than the rest. By the end of the year it looked like they had settled on #61 OL Chewins at left tackle, but periodically I was surprised to see them rotate Higby back to LT late in the season for a few drives despite that being by far his worst position.


DEFENSE

This is a similar 4-3 Over to what I studied last time, though they’ve diversified significantly from the Cover-4 quarters base defense they ran almost exclusively five years ago. There’s a lot less standard-down blitzing, a specialized nickel package for obvious passing downs, and a liberal use of Cover-3. The recurring theme in my notes five years ago is surprise at how much they’d put their corners on islands and the flexibility that gave the defense over the rest of the field; I’m not seeing that nearly as often this season.

Schematically I’m not sure I like it as much, but I believe they’ve made up for it with even more incredible production in the front-seven … and that’s saying something for MSU. Again, look for a full video analysis on Sunday; here are my notes on personnel.

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Defensive Line - This unit is the core of the defense and the primary reason for Michigan St’s overall success. It features three of the best I’ve ever evaluated at their positions: #99 DT R. Williams, #72 DT M. Panasiuk, and #48 DE Willekes, plus a pretty good rotation at the other end between #91 DE Camper and #96 DE J. Panasiuk. It’s hard to overstate how good these defensive line starters are and how thoroughly they had locked down opponents’ run games, as well as providing consistent penetration on passing attempts. Willekes’ versatility should be highlighted - he’s equally effective at making inside moves as he is at an outside speed rush and he simply can’t be stopped by running backs staying behind in pass-pro.

I think the backup tackles, #93 DT Jones and #41 DT Owens, are pretty good as well but there’s an appreciable dropoff in my opinion (hard for there not to be, with how good the starters are). I’m surprised to say I don’t know how good the depth is - I don’t think I ever saw a defensive lineman outside of these seven play, which is unusual for a 4-3. Also a little weird: the DTs are always paired - Williams and Panasiuk are always together, or it’s Jones and Owens, but never mixed up.

Linebackers - Structurally the defense funnels everything to the MIKE, the starter being #35 LB Bachie who’s great at his job - he gets to the right gap and makes the tackle effectively. I think if anything he’s overaggressive; all the dings I’ve got of him on the tally sheet are sticking his nose in too early on what turn out to be outside runs, and biting on play action and abandoning his underneath coverage responsibilities. The other constant presence on the field is #5 LB A. Dowell, who’s something like a rover and covers a pretty huge portion of the field - he’s on the smaller side (twin brother of a starting safety) but that doesn’t limit his tackling ability much, and pretty damned fast too. My criticism is that I think he relies on his speed too much: instead of playing on instinct, he waits till he’s certain of where the play is going and then hustles over to it, and I’ve seen that translate into giving up extra yardage.

The rest of the backers form an interesting rotation. In obvious rushing downs they’ll play #17 LB Thompson, who’s a real bruising hitter although often a little late to the play; there’s two backups on whom I don’t have much data but seem fine, #28 LB Reshke and #34 LB Simmons; and then #38 LB Bullough didn’t play much but I believe there’s some blood pact that requires there always be one on this team. Finally, I was intrigued by the way the defense uses #26 LB Bouyer-Randle, who seems to only play in blitzing situations and is a hell of a pass-rusher - in fact I think there’s a play, frequently used in 3rd & long, which is entirely structured around him crashing the QB.

Secondary - Of the guys I watched, the star was clearly #2 CB Layne, who’s a pretty ideal combination of speed and ranginess for the position and, as I mentioned earlier, was a fairly decent receiver in a pinch. Unfortunately he’s going to be sitting out the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. In the last four games, #22 CB Scott returned from injury and took the spot opposite Layne … I don’t have enough data on him to say much; he’s net-negative on my tally sheet but that’s not a surprise because I never have great camera angles on CBs from the broadcast. I wasn’t surprised he got the spot though, because in the first eight games it was played by a rotation of #19 CB Butler and #24 DB Person (with a couple other DBs spelling them or playing nickel on a few snaps), and they’re both pretty deep underwater in per-play effectiveness on my tally sheet.

At safety, #27 S Willis was a constant presence - I believe he’ll be playing in the Senior bowl next month. I didn’t think he was great in coverage but he’s mostly there to make the tackle, at which he was fairly reliable. The other starter is #6 S D. Dowell, and like his brother he’ s light, fast, and assigned to a big territory. I like that he plays bigger than his size, but to be frank I think the defense putting as much as it does on his shoulders is a mistake - he’s got by far the most frowny faces on my tally sheet of any defensive player. I don’t think he’s great in either tackling or coverage, simply because he lacks the physical dimensions to break up passes or make strong tackles, and I often see him hesitating to come down hard into the middle of the field.

Michigan State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images