Break out the steel wool. Spring in East Lansing this year, for some, will be a time for removing rust.
Michigan State pulled on its pads earlier this week to start attacking a sizable to-do list for the offseason. The defending Big Ten champions have to find a new quarterback, replace two-thirds of their starting linemen and prepare to fend off the rest of a league that is getting deeper and stronger again this season. They also have to carefully ease some important players back into place at key spots in the lineup.
Linebacker, defensive back and offensive tackle will all be pivotal positions for the Spartans in 2016. Each of them is home to a potential impact player returning this spring from a significant injury. Sixth-year senior Ed Davis can help make Michigan State’s linebackers group the best in the conference. Sophomore Vayante Copeland can help bolster a secondary that struggled at times in 2015. And Dennis Finley is a candidate to replace All-America tackle Jack Conklin.
The priority for that trio this spring is staying as healthy as possible while not falling too far behind in preparation. Head coach Mark Dantonio said last week that all three are working back into drills this month at their own pace.
“I think especially Ed Davis is working back in – Dennis Finley as well,” Dantonio said. “Vayante looks pretty good. He’s gone through all our winter conditioning program.”
A fractured vertebrae halted a promising start to Copeland’s college career last fall. The freshman won a starting job at cornerback but injured his neck in the fourth quarter of Michigan State’s season opener at Western Michigan. He could have been a difference-maker during an uncharacteristically pedestrian year for the Spartans' secondary.
Copeland told reporters at practice this week that he was able to be aggressive with his teammates when they ran routes against each other this winter. Coaches and other players said he looked better than they expected for his first time in pads in almost seven full months.
"I just took the process slow,” Copeland told MLive.com. “I took it day by day with help from the training staff and help from other people. I'm ready to go now, chasing the Big Ten and chasing greatness."
Finley’s injury came shortly after a promising start as well, but his was later in the season and he might need a bit more time to get back to full strength.
The redshirt junior made his first career start last October in place of an injured Conklin. Finley acquitted himself well against the Purdue defensive line in the first half before breaking his fibula and tibia later in the game. Finley took part in most drills in pads this week, according to the Detroit Free Press, but sees the mental aspect of returning from a gruesome injury to a big obstacle he has yet to fully conquer.
“I think the biggest thing is fear,” he told the Free Press. “…It’s a fear that you don’t want to do so much to worsen anything. But I think the biggest thing is trusting that it healed fine and that when I do come back, it’ll be 100 percent and I’ll be ready to go.”
Finley will likely be one of the eight players Michigan State keeps in its offensive line rotation during the regular season. If he can become a more permanent fixture at left tackle, that would be a positive for a group in transition.
Davis won’t earn his bachelor’s degree until this summer and needs to wait until then to officially apply for an NCAA waiver to play a sixth season. Michigan State is confident that he'll be a part of the team next fall.
“He’s on track. That’s all I can tell you,” Dantonio said last week.
Davis, next to Riley Bullough, Jon Reschke and Chris Frey (the last two being the pair that replaced Davis after he tore ligaments in his knee last August), has the potential to fill out an athletic and experienced group in the middle of Michigan State’s defense. With three starters to replace on the line in front of them, the linebackers will play an important role as the glue of the defense in 2016.
Copeland, Finley and Davis all play in positions that have been staples of Michigan State’s success under Dantonio. All three have the potential to keep or return their group to a position of strength. The three of them making up as much ground as possible, and more importantly doing so while staying free of setbacks, is an important piece of the puzzle if the Spartans are going to accomplish their biggest goal this offseason – staying on track to defend the Big Ten title.