An easy but accurate excuse for Michigan State football’s poor season in 2022 lies within its offensive line play.
The team averaged just 113 rushing yards per game (their lowest output by far in the last 20 years) on less than 4.0 yards per rushing attempt, and allowed Spartan running backs a whopping 1.7 yards before getting contacted by a defender. A lot of this has to do with injuries across the offensive line and also the makeshift locker room; both can cause huge chemistry issues and chemistry, trust, and comfort along the offensive line can be just as important as size and technique.
Why do I think the run game will be better this year? For starters, the team isn’t trying to convert walk-on defensive linemen to offensive linemen just to give the starters a break. Just because a guy is big and ugly doesn’t mean he can block. Mel Tucker has emphasized the depth of the offensive line room at just about any press engagement he’s been to so far.
With 20 linemen on the fall roster, there will be no shortage of capable substitutes should any of the starters go down. The silver lining in all those injuries last year is that a lot of young guys got real game experience, most notably redshirt sophomore Geno VanDeMark and redshirt junior Brandon Baldwin, both of whom are expected to start when the season arrives on Sept. 1.
Experience will drive Michigan State football’s offensive line
Speaking of experience, the Spartans have it in spades as the team brings back four redshirt senior offensive linemen. The only lost starter from a year ago was Jarrett Horst, who ended up signing a contract with the Miami Dolphins after the NFL draft.
Spartan fans got good news early in the year when Nick Samac, who has made the Rimington Trophy watchlist for the nation’s best center, announced he would return for his senior season, with left guard JD Duplain posting the same thing just two days later. Samac was the anchor of the line, playing in all 12 games at center, and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by coaches and the media. Duplain also gave the left tackle position some stability, starting all 12 games and being named honorable mention All-Big Ten by media and coaches.
The Spartans’ expected starting line will consist of a redshirt junior and a redshirt sophomore, and three redshirt seniors, all with multiple starts last year. It’s this experience that can’t be taught in practice and will help the Spartans exceed season expectations.
From middle school football to the best of the NFL, it takes size to have a good offensive line and Tucker has seen enough success as an assistant at Alabama and Georgia to know how big he wants his recruits.
A knock on Mark Dantonio was that the offensive lines during the bad years were too small, some under 300 pounds, and when the strength and conditioning coaches tried to beef them up in the off-season, their muscles, tendons, and joints couldn’t keep up with the extra weight, resulting in injuries and never seeing their full potential (I still think Cole Chewins could have been one of the greats). But Dantonio’s best rushing team (2014) had an average weight of 312 pounds and an average height of around 6-foot-4. This year’s starters have an average weight of 311 pounds and an average height of a little over 6-foot-5.
The backups? According to Chris Solari’s tweet about the linemen who were working with the second-team average 317.4 pounds (a huge advantage with Kristian Phillips’ 347-pound frame). There will be plays during the season where the Michigan State offensive line will average more weight than Michigan’s starters (314.8) and Ohio State’s (315.8).
Looking for an elite offensive line? Georgia’s starters average 320 pounds and 6-foot-6.
Offensive line play could be the most important aspect of the game when the Spartans have the ball. I know quarterback is the most important position, but his job gets a lot easier when the team can run the ball effectively and when he has time to throw the ball. Both things hinge on how well your offensive line plays.
Chris Kapilovic was recognized as the top offensive line coach in the Big Ten and this year has to be the year he shows it, there is simply too much talent, experience, and depth for this team to repeat the poor numbers of last year. The more these players get to know each other, practice together, gel as a unit, and trust each other, the sky is the limit for this Michigan State Football team.