After a 2-year break the Michigan State series is back on the schedule for 2016. Today, we look at how their offense is shaping up and as you'd imagine there aren't many familiar faces from the last time the Irish faced the Spartans.
Starters Returning: 5/11
Key Losses: QB Connor Cook, FB Trevon Pendleton, WR Aaron Burbridge, WR Macgarrett Kings, WR DeAnthony Arnett, TE Paul Lang, LT Jack Conklin, C Jack Allen, RG Donovan Clark
Key Returnees: RB L.J. Scott, RB Gerald Holmes, WR R.J. Shelton, TE Josiah Price, LG Brian Allen, LG Benny McGowan, RT Kodi Kieler
FEI Offense Rank: 23
S&P Offense Rank: 27
S&P Rush Rank: 98
S&P Pass Rank: 30
Turnovers: 14 (8 INT)
If you tuned into the Ohio State game or Big Ten Championship you may have believed Michigan State's offense was doing just fine without quarterback Connor Cook. Despite winning both of those games, and in spite of Cook's stock taking a decent tumble throughout 2015, he leaves a massive hole at the position in East Lansing.
Cook leaves Michigan State as the school-record holder in wins, touchdown passes, passing yards, and total offense.
In his absence the Spartans appear to be turning to 5th-year senior Tyler O'Connor who started one game (Ohio State) last year while Cook was injured. For his career, O'Connor has thrown 54 passes and totaled 94 rushing yards.
Michigan State is also looking at redshirt junior Damion Terry but head coach Mark Dantonio has said O'Connor leads after spring, he'll likely start the season, and the competition could continue into the fall once games begin. Both are much more mobile than Cook (Terry more so than O'Connor) which can bring a new angle to the offense. Still, major question marks surround the passing game and its effectiveness this fall.
Youth at Receiver
The questions in the passing game not only have to do with replacing Cook but also replacing 66% of the receptions and 65% of the receiving yards from 2015.
Moving on without Aaron Burbridge is especially concerning. He exploded in 2015 with 85 receptions, 1,258 yards, and 7 touchdowns to earn the Big Ten Receiver of the Year award.
Senior R.J. Shelton started 5 games and was the team's third-leading receiver (43 receptions) so he brings some veteran experience. Beyond that, not a whole lot is known before the season begins.
A pair of freshmen were on campus for spring in Donnie Corley and Cameron Chambers. The former player is already receiving some rave reviews and will likely be a factor, even early in the season. Corley and Chambers combine with Justin Layne and Trishton Jackson to form one of the best freshmen wideout classes in the country. Each player comes to East Lansing with at least a .910 Composite score.
Lean on L.J.
Michigan State's rushing offense could be described as gritty and perhaps very opportunistic. However, the advanced stats didn't love this aspect of the Spartan offense. Well, neither did the traditional stats as the Spartans finished 94th nationally with 151 yards per game. Although they bring back all ball carriers and a trio of starting tailbacks that combined for 1,689 yards no one out of that group averaged over 4.91 yards per carry.
The Spartans began 2015 riding Madre London but he eventually proved ineffective so the offense turned to Gerald Holmes and true freshman L.J. Scott.
The rising Scott in particular has a bright future after leading the team in carries (149), yards (699), and touchdowns (11). He's a cannon ball at 6-0 and 238 pounds and was on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. If you recall, it was Scott who scored the dramatic game-winning touchdown against Iowa in the Big Ten Title Game.
Michigan State is going to get the benefit of the doubt in pre-season prognostications. That's what happens when you're coming off a 36-5 run over the past 3 years. However, I'm not sure if that benefit of doubt should extend completely to their offense.
Some nice running backs and a few veteran offensive linemen add much needed stability but beyond that Michigan State could be very average and certainly lacking experience. The trend line on offense doesn't offer a bunch of hope, either. The Spartans averaged 6.55 yards-per-play in 2014 during Peak Connor Cook Love™ but book-ended that with 5.40 and 5.44 YPP efforts--both well below average nationally.
The last time Michigan State had to move on from a multi-year starter with NFL aspirations their offense tanked down to 4.88 YPP and they won 7 games.
Will they repeat that mess? I doubt it will get that bad but it's more likely than having a great offense which isn't really a controversial point. Having more mobility at the quarterback position should give the ground game a nice boost but with few proven weapons at receiver I can see the offense struggling to stay balanced and explosive enough to keep up the .878 winning percentage in recent years.
I haven't mentioned the tight end position which will give a new quarterback a lot of comfort. Paul Lang is gone after starting 9 games but Jamal Lyles brings 18 career receptions and Josiah Price was third-team All-Big Ten last year with 6 touchdown receptions on 23 total catches.