Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 18 Michigan State

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State

No. 18 Michigan State

2018 record: 7-6 (5-4 Big Ten)
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense

Best defense in the Big Ten?

Michigan State’s 7-6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl pretty much summed up the juxtaposition of the 2018 season. The Spartans had a stellar defense — one of the best in the nation. But the offense was just miserable.

We’ll start on the positive side of the ball. On paper, there’s no reason to think MSU’s defense won’t be excellent once again — perhaps the best in the Big Ten. A unit that led the nation in rush defense (77.9 yards per game) and was top 10 in scoring defense (17.2 points per game) and total defense (303.2 yards per game) returns eight starters, including two first-team All-Big Ten performers: linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive end Kenny Willekes.

There’s no weakness on the defensive line. Seniors Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk clog the middle while junior Jacub Panasiuk (Mike’s brother) lines up opposite Willekes, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.

Bachie, who has combined for 202 tackles over the past two seasons, quarterbacks the defense from his middle linebacker position with senior Tyriq Thompson at his side. The secondary is led by the reliable presence of junior Josiah Scott at corner and fifth-year senior David Dowell at safety.

It’s never easy to replace a safety of Khari Willis’ caliber, but Xavier Henderson is in line to be a major contributor after seeing action last fall as a true freshman.

Can Brian Lewerke bounce back?

Through five weeks, Michigan State’s offense was averaging a very respectable 27.2 points per game. But when quarterback Brian Lewerke injured his shoulder in a Week 6 road win over Penn State, the Spartans’ production fell off a cliff.

Michigan State is a lot like Iowa with stubborn commitment to the ground game despite always seeming to be faced with second-and-long situations. And when an injured Lewerke wasn’t able to fully use his athleticism (or arm) to get MSU out of adverse down-and-distance situations, the results were not good. MSU averaged 12.2 points per game over its final seven contests, including four games with seven points or fewer. Unsurprisingly, those four were losses.

Entering 2019, however, Lewerke is fully healthy, according to MSU coach Mark Dantonio. Lewerke was a breakout performer in 2017 when he put up 2,793 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions along with 559 yards and five scores rushing. The Spartans are counting on him returning to that level for his senior season.

“I think his confidence is back. He certainly is back and healthy. He's bigger and stronger, he's faster, and he comes into his senior year with a tremendous amount of game experience,” Dantonio said at Big Ten Media Days. “I expect great things from him and I expect him to return to his sophomore status.”

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke looks to throw a pass during an NCAA college football spring scrimmage game, Saturday, April 13, 2019, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke looks to throw a pass during an NCAA college football spring scrimmage game, Saturday, April 13, 2019, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

MSU’s issues went well beyond Lewerke

The rest of the offense desperately needs to improve, too.

The running backs, with Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson leading the way, averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Heyward was the team’s leading rusher with just 529 yards and five scores.

Some of those running struggles reflect the offensive line play, but that unit dealt with an array of injuries last fall and should be better with all five starters returning. Starting receivers Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White dealt with injuries as well, missing a combined six games. Though Felton Davis has graduated, Stewart (48 catches for 413 yards) and White (42 catches for 555 yards) will also be back in the lineup.

And if you’re wondering if Dantonio made any changes to his offensive staff, he did. Well, sort of. Instead of bringing in some fresh eyes to assess the situation, he simply shuffled the staff, moving each position coach to a new position and promoting Brad Salem up from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.

“We just need to shake it up a little bit,” Dantonio said Jan. 10. “We have good coaches. We understand concepts. We understand the history and what went wrong. Now let's try and fix it.”

Biggest game: at Ohio State (Oct. 5)

The Big Ten East is one of the toughest divisions in college football with four teams ranked in the top 18 of Yahoo Sports’ preseason rankings. Of those three (Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan), the Spartans draw the Buckeyes first and will travel to Columbus on Oct. 5. Ohio State has won three straight in the series, the last two by a combined margin of 74-9. If Michigan State is going to compete for the division crown, winning this game would go a long way.

FILE - In this Oct. 20, 2018, file photo, Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes rushes the line during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in East Lansing, Mich. Ohio State visits Michigan State needing a win to stay on track for a Big Ten East showdown with Michigan in two weeks. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Michigan State DE Kenny Willekes has been a force the last two seasons. Will he be fully healthy in 2019? (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Impact player

DE Kenny Willekes

Kenny Willekes went from walk-on to the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten in four years. And he may be in the NFL right now if it weren’t for a broken leg he suffered in the bowl game. Willekes, with 35 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks combined over the past two seasons, put himself on the radar of NFL scouts but opted to return to school and rehab his injury in East Lansing. He sat out spring practice, but is expected to be fully healthy for preseason camp.

Biggest question mark

From SpartanMag’s Paul Konyndyk: Michigan State has plenty to prove on offense under new coordinator Brad Salem. Brian Lewerke is back to being the player he was prior the shoulder injury he suffered in a win at Penn State. Darrell Stewart and Cody White are two of the top wide receivers in the league. For this offense to click, the Spartans need to run the football effectively. That will not happen unless the O-line takes a significant step forward. Injuries were the biggest storyline for the front five last season. Despite underachieving, the O-line has experience and physical ability. Now, they need to put it to work.

Spartan Mag’s Breakout player

S Xavier Henderson

Sophomore safety Xavier Henderson broke into the playing rotation as a nickel back for Michigan State’s top-10 defense last season. The physical former Rivals250 standout will take on an even bigger role for the Spartans as he looks to fill the shoes of former All-Big Ten strong safety Khari Willis, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.

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Michigan State defensive lineman Raequan Williams nearly intercepts a pass during a spring NCAA college football scrimmage, Saturday, April 1, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Michigan State defensive lineman Raequan Williams could be an early pick in the 2019 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

DT Raequan Williams

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: DE Kenny Willekes might have been the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2018, but we could see Williams having a bit higher profile this year in the eyes of NFL draft scouts. Both are well-regarded in scouting circles, and the Spartans are absolutely loaded in the front seven, setting the tone for what should be a phenomenal defense.

Williams was named third-team all-conference, logging 53 tackles (including 10.5 for loss) and two sacks. Fairly modest numbers for sure — but Williams easily could have gone pro after last season. When Yahoo Sports asked what feedback he got from the NFL prior to the deadline to declare early, Williams shrugged and said he never bothered to look at scouts’ reports on him or where he projected to be taken.

“I didn’t even see anything they had on me,” Williams said. “I knew I was coming back.”

Williams has overcome a lot in his time in college, including the shooting deaths of two family members, and said he’s become much stronger — mentally and physically — in the past few years. That could make him a first-round prospect with a big final season. He’s already a pro-ready NFL run stopper, needing only to develop more pass-rush refinement to get there.

Fantasy sleeper

WR Cody White

With 77 catches combined over the past two seasons, White isn’t exactly a new face. But he has the chance to develop into a No. 1 option with Felton Davis graduated and Darrell Stewart’s role as more of a possession receiver. Another under the radar receiver is sophomore Jalen Nailor. He’s had trouble staying healthy, but started the bowl game.

Over/under projection

Over 7.5

Even with road games at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, hitting the over by reaching the eight-win mark feels like a good bet. A 5-0 start is very possible, and that leaves Illinois, Rutgers and Maryland still on the schedule. With a defense this strong, MSU is going to play in a bunch of close games.

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