EAST LANSING, MICH. - All around Chris Frey, there are fresh faces. Along the defensive line, next to him at middle linebacker, behind him in the secondary.
The same holds for Brian Allen. Up-and-coming linemen flanking the veteran center, a new starting quarterback behind him, a host of unproven wide receivers farther down the line.
The seniors are outnumbered. By a lot. And like it or not, as Mark Dantonio tries to erase the sting of his worst year at Michigan State, his Spartans enter their preseason workouts in a full-on youth movement.
“Yes, we’ve got to be teachers, we always have had to be,” Dantonio said as he opened his 11th season. “We spend the entire day with these guys so they’ll get it from A to Z, just over and over.”
Today marked a cleansing moment for Dantonio and his program. Last year finally retreated to past tense. Concerns about who would or wouldn’t be there vanished. Questions about disgrace and dismissals disappeared.
It was finally back to football. And the players who remain – many of them underclassmen who are being thrust into important leadership roles – did as their coach wants and focused on moving forward.
“We know we gotta play – the young guys gotta play this year,” said sophomore Joe Bachie, who is penciled in as the starting middle linebacker. “We don’t have many seniors, so the young guys gotta step up.”
A year ago, Bachie received his baptism to college football after now-graduated Riley Bullough was ejected at Maryland. Bachie was one of nine true freshmen to play a year ago, though four of them – Donnie Corley, Josh King, Auston Robertson and Kenney Lyke – are all gone from the program.
Frey and Allen are two of just 12 seniors on the Spartans’ roster, only half of whom are expected to be in the two-deep chart when the season opens Sept. 2 at home against Bowling Green. There are 41 sophomore and redshirt freshmen combined and 35 true freshmen on MSU’s roster to start camp.
New starting quarterback Brian Lewerke is a redshirt sophomore who started two of the four games he played in last year’s 3-9 season before breaking his leg against Michigan. There are no seniors for him to throw to, with oft-injured Felton Davis the veteran of the young wide receiving corps and little-used junior Matt Sokol emerging as the top tight end.
“I think this is obviously a young-led team,” Lewerke said. “I think us as the younger people on the team are doing a great job of stepping up and trying to fill the roles that we have. … There’s a lot more younger guys on this team than there was last year, so I feel like I’m able to relate to more guys being the same age as them.
“You don’t feel like you’re stepping on people’s toes. You don’t feel like you’re trying to be that guy that’s yelling and screaming at people.”
The mustachioed offensive line is built around Allen but features third-year sophomores Cole Chewins and Tyler Higby on the left side and redshirt freshman Luke Campbell at right tackle. A number of other true and redshirt freshmen could see action in front of Lewerke.
“We don’t have too much experience coming back,” Chewins said. “So (camp) is our time to mesh, and this is our time to figure out all the little schemes and things like that and just grow as a unit.”
Defensively, sophomores Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams, along with redshirt freshman Naquan Jones, are being counted on to plug the middle of the line at defensive tackle and help replace Malik McDowell. A lot of pressure also will be on sophomore Kenny Willekes and junior Robert Bowers at defensive end to help senior Demetrius Cooper, who is working his way back from a “red-locked” situation with the program.
At cornerback, it appears that true freshman Josiah Scott and second-year sophomore Justin Layne have the edge at cornerback. The Spartans also lost starting safeties in Demetrious Cox to graduation and Montae Nicholson to the NFL a year early.
“It’s important to have veteran guys wherever you can,” junior linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “But also, it’s just everybody feeding off each other to learn things and help each other out.”
Dantonio and his staff have not shied away from playing true freshmen if they are ready to contribute and if there is a need. A number of them could be needed again this fall after an off-season in which MSU lost 13 players to either dismissal, transfer or early entry into the NFL draft.
But first, the youngest Spartans must show more than just raw, physical talent. Dantonio said they will need to become proficient in MSU’s concepts and “learn how to play with their pads on, which we haven’t got to yet.” That will come with practice and scrimmage reps over the next month before kickoff.
“So right now, they know a little bit of what they’re supposed to do,” Dantonio said. “But they don’t know it unconsciously. They can’t make these decisions on habit and it’s got to become on habit.”
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Download our Spartans Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!
Detroit Free Press