With the 2018 season quickly approaching, #5 Michigan State enters the fall as one of the younger, but most experienced teams in the country and the Spartans already have a good idea of who some of their leaders will be when they the season kicks off on August 31st against Utah State.
In an exclusive interview with Spartan Nation, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantoniodiscussed a number of topics including his outlook for the upcoming season.
Dantonio cited a handful of players that he expects to play key leadership roles this fall, including senior running back L.J. Scott, senior safety Khari Willis, junior quarterback Brian Lewerke and junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie.
When it comes to Scott, Dantonio said that after three highly productive seasons in the Michigan State backfield, he visions another big year for his senior running back as he looks to close out his collegiate career on a high note.
“A very talented player, a player that played early in his career, had success early in his career, in the ‘15 season, even in ‘16, he almost ran for 1,000 yards, last year was probably a little bit less productive, but probably an even better football player,” he said. “But I see that, as you get your senior year, the end is near, and the message to our seniors has always been that you have to have your best year. Sometimes you need to prepare for that best year, so you need to have that little bit better work ethic or leadership or whatever it is. I think he’s coming - not that he’s got a ways to come, he’s a guy who can play at the next level - but I do think in every area we’re always trying to get better a little bit, in every area, all of us. I think he’s working in those areas for himself.”
Scott surprised many Spartan fans after he announced he would skip the NFL draft to return for his senior season. A 6-foot-1, 226-pound workhorse, Scott is regarded as one of the nation’s top running backs heading into next season after totaling over 2,500 yards rushing in his first three seasons in East Lansing.
While Willis doesn’t always grab the headlines that some of his teammates may, Dantonio said that he has been a key contributor for his team since his freshman season and sees him playing a big role for the Spartan defense once again this fall.
“He has tremendous faith, he’s a faith-driven person, which I think helps him through adversity,” he said. “He’s got great leadership skills, he comes from a big family, so he’s used to sharing, he’s got great role models in his parents. He played for a good (high school) program at Lumen Christi, he was a tailback, outside backer. Played since he was a freshman, he’s a 3.4 student and he’s poised and ready again - another guy who’s going to be senior - to have a great year, I think. The thing about last year is we rebounded and coming into the year, we had to go every little step of the way to try and regain that confidence. We’re a confident football team right now and that’s a positive.”
In his first three seasons in East Lansing, Willis has tallied 112 career tackles and two interceptions and will help lead a secondary that returns all of its starters in 2018.
Following a breakout season in 2017, Brian Lewerke heads into the 2018 season regarded as one of the top dual-threat signal callers in college football and Dantonio believes his starting quarterback is ready to build off of last year and will continue to take on a bigger leadership role.
“He can run, as everybody knows and sees, he can throw it, he’s been very productive,” he said. “He understands where to go with the ball, he knows our system, and he’s been in our system now because he was redshirted with coach Salem in the same offense, so this will be his fourth year in the system. He’s another guy that’s poised for a good season. But it doesn’t ensure - that’s the thing that I want to make sure that we all understand here constantly that we always need to be on guard in terms of where we’re at, in terms of our attitude and identity and who we are as people on the field and off the field and what we’re trying to do to get better in both areas.”
In his first full season as the starter a year ago, Lewerke compiled 3,352 yards of total offense, a Spartan sophomore record, and 20 touchdowns as he helped lead a balanced Michigan State offense.
Much like Lewerke, Bachie became a household name a season ago after recording 100 tackles as a sophomore, which was the seventh most in the Big Ten.
Dantonio noted that there are several aspects of Bachie’s game that stands out to him and sees the junior linebacker being an anchor for his defense once again in 2018.
“He’s an all-around great athlete, he’s got a great work ethic, he’s a very intelligent player, he’s got strength, quickness, he’s got ball skills,” he said. “He can be very, very good. I think that’s pretty evident, he’s a football player.”
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