The Spartans are coming off an impressive season after missing a bowl game for the first time in Mark Dantonio’s tenure in a disastrous 2016, in which they went 3-9. They return all but three starters from a team that produced MSU’s best turnaround last fall, a 10-3 campaign in which they were in contention for a Big Ten East title until November and then won the Holiday Bowl over Washington State.
Though there are not many unsettled positions going into the opening practices, the Spartans do have some questions on the field before their Aug. 31 season-opener at home against Utah State (7 p.m., Big Ten Network).
Former walk-on Kenny Willekes, who emerged from seemingly nowhere last season to seize a starting job on one side, returns as an impressive pass-rushing force and run-stopper. Finding a starter opposite Willekes remains a work in progress after the spring, in which sophomore Jacub Panasiuk and redshirt freshman Jack Camper – a converted tight end – both battled injuries. Dantonio and his staff raved about the play of junior Justice Alexander all spring, while senior Dillon Alexander has some starting experience and sophomore linebacker Brandon Randle played rush end last season in third-down packages.
Finding a replacement for graduated SAM linebacker Chris Frey was of the utmost importance in the spring. Coaches watched as Randle and junior Tyriq Thompson battled for the open position while many of their fellow linebackers – including returning Star starter Andrew Dowell and backup Antjuan Simmons – were injured. The reinstatement of Jon Reschke to the roster also could play a factor here if he’s healthy. The sixth-year senior was a 227-pound starter at Star linebacker in 2015 and 2016, but he is now up to 237 pounds following a non-football knee injury he suffered while in exile from the program for a racist text message.
Matt Allen appears to be the heir apparent to his graduated brother, Brian, as the Spartans’ snapper and would be the third in their family to hold the position. The sophomore took the bulk of the reps during the spring game, but MSU also experimented with both junior Tyler Higby and redshirt freshman walk-on Blake Bueter each getting opportunities during that scrimmage and sophomore Jordan Reid getting snaps during spring practices. It is unlikely Dantonio would turn such an important position over to a true freshman, but he did mention Jacob Isaia – the grandson of MSU legend Bob Apisa – among those who could compete for the job in preseason camp.
Backup running back
Barring injury, no one is likely to supplant fourth-year starter LJ Scott, who bypassed the NFL draft to return for his senior season. Sophomore Connor Heyward appears to have the skills and trust of the coaches to handle second-string duty, and he could be used in a variety of ways like a bigger-bodied R.J. Shelton. Incoming freshmen La’Darius Jefferson and Elijah Collins will have opportunities for one of them to seize the third-string role, with redshirt freshman Weston Bridges coming off a knee injury.
Special teams specialists
The most glaring concern is on kickoffs, where the Spartans graduated Brett Scanlon and saw little from both Tyler Hunt and Cole Hahn during the spring game. The new NCAA kickoff rule allowing fair catches inside the 25 to count as touchbacks will require a deft foot from whoever gets the job. On the flip side, MSU used Heyward on kickoff returns and Cody White on punts a year ago, but both sophomores will have more offensive responsibilities this year and could shed those special team duties if the Spartans can find replacements.