Michigan State has some major holes to fill on the offensive line this season. Head coach Mark Dantonio plans on using more than a five-man group to do it.
This spring the Spartans will start their search to replace All-America tackle Jack Conklin, All-America center Jack Allen and right guard Donovan Clark, who started more than 30 games for the Spartans. The solution won’t be as simple as finding three new bodies and plugging them into the formidable gaps left by the exit of that much talent and experience. Dantonio said he plans to use a rotation of eight players on the offensive line in the coming year.
“I don't think five any more is the perfect answer for us,” he said earlier this week. “I think eight more is like it.”
The Spartans have used a long bench on the offensive line for the last few years, partly by design and partly due to necessity. Offensive line coach Mark Staten likes to deploy a few extra players to keep his guys fresh throughout a game, a strategy that has grown on the head coach. Last season, a rash of injuries forced the Spartans to use more than a half-dozen different starting lineups up front.
That experience has helped the guys who will step in for Allen, Conklin and Clark to get comfortable in their increasing roles. Returners such as Brandon Clemons, Miguel Machado and Benny McGowan all have played significant snaps in significant situations, which makes losing that powerful trio a lesser problem than it appears on paper.
“It's been a situation where -- and I think Coach Staten has done a great job with this -- getting different guys experience to be able to play eight guys and move them in and out of games like that has benefitted us,” Dantonio said. “When we've had injuries, we've been able to plug in a guy that has significant game experience. So I think we'll still maintain that approach. I think we have those numbers.”
Michigan State will likely whittle this season’s eight out of a group of 10 eligible candidates. Junior Brian Allen and redshirt senior Kodi Kieler are the two returning starters and will be mainstays again this season. Along with the three others mentioned above, redshirt sophomores Dennis Finley and David Beedle also played last fall and will figure in again in 2016. Finley broke his leg in his first career start last October and will spend this spring returning to full strength.
They will all be joined by redshirt freshmen Tyler Higby, Noah Listermann and Cole Chewins, who get their first crack at earning a role after spending their first year on campus getting stronger and adjusting to the college game.
The Spartans also plan to use this spring as a time to cross-train many of the more experienced linemen to provide more flexible options when rotating players in and out of games. Brian Allen, who has started games at guard and center during his first two years in East Lansing, is slotted to replace his older brother, Jack, at center this season. But he will also continue taking practice reps at guard.
When Allen moves to guard, Kieler will get a chance to work at center. He’s been a tackle for the majority of his college career, but is comfortable enough there that the coaching staff wants to experiment to see where else he’s capable of helping.
“We're going to try and promote growth and stretch people,” Dantonio said. “So I know where Kodi Kieler can play. I know where certain players can play, so we need to stretch them and see can they play at these different positions as we move forward.”