EAST LANSING, Mich. – It was a picture perfect day to start spring practice for the Michigan State football team.
Under partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the high-50s, the Spartans held the first of their 15 allotted spring workouts on Tuesday on the practice fields behind the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.
It’s the beginning for what the Spartans are hoping is a first step toward competing for a Big Ten Championship.
After finishing the 2017 campaign with a 10-3 record and a No. 15 ranking by The Associated Press, Michigan State is looking to use the momentum built from last year into another successful season in 2018. The Spartans capped the greatest single-season turnaround in school history with a dominating 42-17 win over No. 18 Washington State in the Holiday Bowl to record their sixth double-digit win season in the last eight years.
“This is our 12th spring practice, so we’re excited to get this one started,” said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, who has won 100 games in his first 11 seasons at MSU. “Our goal is always trying to get a little bit better I think as a group through improving every individual. Just a couple percent of the time and we’ll keep working. We’ve got a lot of young players coming back so we’re excited about it.”
After featuring one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, Michigan State returns a total of 49 letterwinners and 19 position starters in 2018. A total of 33 players returning have starting experience (16 offense, 14 defense, three special teams). Out of a combined 286 possible starting positions in 2017 on offense and defense throughout the course of 13 games, the Spartans are returning 239 of those starts (84 percent). The 19 position starters returning on offense and defense are tied for the second most in the FBS (Kansas, 20). According to the S&P+ Ratings from SB Nation, MSU has the most returning production of any team in the FBS.
On defense, the Spartans return 23 letterwinners and nine starters from a unit that finished ranked in the FBS Top 10 in rushing defense (No. 2 at 95.3 ypg) and total defense (No. 7 at 297.6 ypg). Out of a possible 143 starting positions last season over the course of 13 games, the Spartans are returning 120 of those starts (84 percent). Five of those nine returning starters started in all 13 games last season (LB Joe Bachie, LB Andrew Dowell, DT Mike Panasuik, NT Raequan Williams, S Khari Willis).
“We didn’t lose many pieces,” said Willis, who is entering his senior season in 2018. “I feel like it’s very helpful for us because we’re bringing back a lot of experience and I feel like we’ve got a lot of playmakers on our defense. We’ve got a couple spots where we’ve got to fill and I feel like we’ve got the guys that are capable to do it. So I’m excited to see who’s willing to step up and see exactly where we are right now.”
The Spartans will welcome 10 starters back on offense, including senior running back LJ Scott and junior quarterback Brian Lewerke. The only starter lost on offense was center Brian Allen. MSU returns 100 percent of its passing yards from the quarterback position, 82 percent of its receptions, 81 percent of its receiving yards, and 71 percent of its rushing yards. Out of a possible 143 starting positions last season over the course of 13 games, the Spartans are returning 119 of those starts (83 percent).
“You’ve always got to take that (Holiday Bowl) win and kind of carry it on to the next season, so I think we’re doing that,” said Lewerke. “Obviously it is a whole new year; we’ve got a new group of guys, some guys that left. We still have a lot of guys returning. We kind of got to use the momentum but remember that it’s a new season, and we’ve got a new focus.”
The Spartans are ranked in the Top 25 in several “way-too-early” preseason polls, including CBSSports.com (No. 5), The Athletic (No. 7), ESPN (No. 9), Athlon Sports (No. 10), USA TODAY (No. 10), SI.com (No. 12) and Sporting News (No. 16).
Michigan State returns to action for its second spring practice on Thursday, March 1 before taking a week off for spring break. The Spartans will then resume practicing on Tuesday, March 13.
The Spartans will hold their annual Green-White Spring Game, presented by McLaren Health Plan, on Saturday, April 7 at 5 p.m. in Spartan Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on BTN and BTN2Go.