Big Ten Football Previews - Michigan State Spartans
Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...
Team: Michigan State Spartans
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 5-3 (4th), Sun / 5-6, 2-6 (9th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Sun / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 8-5, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 4-8, 2-6 (T-8th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 7-5, 3-5 (T-8th)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 1 kicker
Key Returnees: QB Drew Stanton, RB Javon Ringer, WR Matt Trannon, WR Jerramy Scott, OG Kyle Cook, DT Clifton Ryan, LB David Herron, P Brandon Fields
Key Losses: C Chris Morris, OT Stefon Wheeler, DT Domata Peko, SS Eric Smith
Looking Back ... As has often been the case in my lifetime as a Michigan State follower, it was a tale of two seasons in East Lansing last fall. Back in the days of George Perles, the Spartans would sputter out of the gates, close strong and garner a bowl berth. The same thing happened in John L. Smith’s first campaign, but lately – namely last season – it has been the exact opposite. In 2005, Michigan State turned the heads of fans, writers, teams and coaches across the nation with a thrilling OT win over Notre Dame and a highly prolific offense. Then the kicking woes set in against Michigan and Ohio State and that was all she wrote.
To follow a brilliant 4-0 start with two gut-wrenching losses to programs like Michigan and Ohio State was bad enough. To follow that by getting annihilated by Northwestern, bullied by Purdue, battered by Minnesota and beaten by Penn State was enough to get the fans that’ve had enough over the years calling for Coach Smith’s job. My take? John L. Smith is the right person for the job. Off-field issues have subsided. The depth chart is finally getting filled with something other than cast offs and walk-ons. If, and it is of course a big IF, players and coaches really do learn from the bad and build on struggles to be bigger and better, Michigan State must be primed for something good. But we’ve all been guilty of thinking that about the Spartans before…
Outlook - Offense ...You’d be hard pressed to convince me that there is a better offense coming back to the Big Ten this fall. There are good quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and offensive lines all around the Big Ten, but the Spartans return their biggest producers from a year ago with experienced depth too boot and if they get good line play, watch out. Of course, there is more to a good team than just the offense, but as the Big Ten has proved out lately, you’d better be able to mix it up if you want to compete on a national scale.
The Spartans are so powerful on offense for one main reason – quarterback Drew Stanton. If the league weren’t so chock full of great quarterbacks, Stanton would be the toast of the conference. Even with the stiff competition, he may well be the best of the best. Stanton has all of the tools to take Michigan State back to a bowl game and to make the green and white a contender in what looks to be a four or five team race. He’s dialed down his tuck it and go philosophy and is an equal threat to beat you with his arms or his legs. Perhaps more than that, he might be one of the hardest workers when it comes to film study. If he can stay healthy and let the offense work for him, the sky is the limit for this offense. If he gets dinged up, it might be another season like 2005 and it means MSU’s next signal caller, Brian Hoyer, will have to step in earlier than expected.
As much as it means to a good offense to have a great field general, you can’t be good without balance. Balance starts with a solid ground game. Jason Teague has moved on, but the core producers are back, and there is a redshirt freshman in the mix that might be as good if not better than last year’s first year sensation Javon Ringer. A.J. Jimmerson was a scout team monster last fall and is ready to compete with a bigger but just as fast Jehuu Caulcrick for second string status. If not for a three-headed attack, Ringer might be a legitimate candidate to battle Tyrell Sutton (Northwestern) and Michael Hart (Michigan) for “best back in the Big Ten” status. Ringer has added weight and strength to compliment his speed and has become a better blocker and receiver. He could be the first back in the JLS era to rush for 1,000 yards.
The other end of the balanced equation centers on the passing game. The Spartans return everyone that contributed last year with the exception of Kyle Brown. There is a ton of depth at each receiver slot, experienced depth. The player to watch is Matt Trannon. Trannon might be better known for what he means to Tom Izzo and the basketball program but he is primed for a big season. Jerramy Scott led the team in catches last year and might be the most underrated receiver in the Big Ten. Kerry Reed made a big splash as a JUCO transfer last fall and will have to hold off Terry Love who has also been a solid producer in his first few seasons. The players to watch are the young up-and-comers who will be the future of the receiving corps. Ryan Allison is a very good possession receiver. Carl Grimes is an athlete waiting for his shot. Freshman T.J. Williams is already being talked about as being the next great MSU receiver. State has depth and experience and a good quarterback to get the ball in the hands of the playmakers. Throw in a now seasoned threat at tight end in Kellen Davis and you can see why the Spartans should be an offensive force this fall.
Perhaps the one question that comes up regarding the Michigan State offense is what to expect of the offensive line. Three starters have moved on, most notably center Chris Morris. There are some big, young, talented players to plug in the holes left by Stefon Wheeler and Gordon Niebylski but going into fall practice, the center job is still somewhat up in the air. Will it be John Masters or starting guard Kyle Cook? Either way, the middle will need to be strong or the offense will not be as free flowing and dangerous as it could be. Both ends of the line are anchored by tall, big tackles Mike Gyetvai (LT) and Jesse Miller (or Pete Clifford). If Cook can stay at guard, he’ll be joined by the highest touted recruit from two years ago, Roland Martin. The key in August will be to develop some of the other backups and get a sound seven man playing group. In big time football, you need to have depth up front more than anywhere. Without it, even the highest octane attacks will spit and sputter to three and outs.
Outlook - Defense ... A lot of the onus for last season’s debacle was placed on the special teams. Maybe rightfully so, but don’t let the defense live down its own transgressions. Blown coverages. Missed tackles. Failure to make enough big stops or force game-changing turnovers. Each item plagued the Spartan defense in 2005 and if State is to take a step into the top tier and run with the big dogs, the defense must improve.
When John L. Smith took over in 2003, the defensive front thrived. Quarterback pressures, tackles for loss and sacks came in droves. The unit has since taken a few steps back and that inability to get to opposing quarterbacks has put pressure on a secondary that couldn’t make the plays. The hope is that after bringing in a bunch of JUCO defensive linemen these past two recruiting classes, the tide will turn. MSU loses three starters from a year ago, but might be better off in the long run. Clifton Ryan is a big, quick, versatile lineman who will shift inside this fall. He’ll be joined by former JUCO standouts David Stanton, Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Bobby Jones and, Joe Toth. That move strengthens the interior and brings some more speed into play on the outside. Sophomores Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw should spend some time in opposing backfields and will only get better as they are pushed by Jonal Saint-Dic and the oft-injured Nick Smith. This group doesn’t need to be fantastic, just good and dependable. If that comes to the table, MSU will be starting down a better path than a season ago.
For the first time in recent memory, the Spartans do not have to do a major shuffle at other positions in order to get depth at linebacker. All three starters return from last season, led by David Herron. Herron has turned into one of the better linebackers in the conference and could have a huge season. SirDarean Adams is definitely a playmaker and will be called upon to add to his early career successes. Kaleb Thornhill has battled injuries but has the genetics to be a solid linebacker. The depth chart is full of young talent, most notably Andrew Hawken, Adam Decker and Eric Gordon. Steven Juarez, a JUCO product that had the coaches buzzing last fall should also see plenty of action this fall.
No doubt about it, if Michigan State is to improve on defense it all starts with the secondary. That would seem like a tall task with the graduation of safety Eric Smith who now dons the green and white of the New York Jets. But the buzz of the spring and summer has been his replacement, JUCO transfer Nehemiah Warrick. Nemo, as his teammates call him, is a big hitter with big talent and should bring a swagger and attitude to a defense that badly needed both. Greg Cooper has moved from safety to corner and finally appears ready to live up to expectations. Demond Williams is small but developed into a decent cornerback last fall and brings electricity to the return game. Sophomore Otis Wiley rounds out the playing group as the starting free safety. Wiley was in on several big plays as a freshman and that should help him entering this season. There is also, for a change, some decent depth here as well. Whether it all comes together or not remains to be seen, but undoubtedly, any success that MSU has on defense will come as a result of an improved secondary.
Outlook - Special Teams ... Run and hide. Well, at least that was the case last season with this three stooge’s act that they called a kicking game. Even the reliable big leg of Brandon Fields went awry in 2005. The good news? It can’t get much worse than 5-16 on field goals. Todd Boleski and freshman Brett Swenson will battle it out for place-kicking duties while Fields has the green light to bang away again. The return game should be strong, so if the kicking game can come around, a successful season is well within reach.
9/2 – IDAHO
9/9 – EASTERN MICHIGAN
9/16 – at Pittsburgh
9/23 – NOTRE DAME
9/30 - ILLINOIS
10/7 – at Michigan
10/14 – OHIO STATE
10/21 – at Northwestern
10/28 – at Indiana
11/4 – PURDUE
11/11 – MINNESOTA
11/18 – at Penn State
Key Games: 9/16 – at Pittsburgh, 9/23 – Notre Dame, 10/7 – at Michigan, 10/14 – Ohio State, 11/18 – at Penn State
Prediction ... The out of conference slate is a bit tougher than the previous teams I’ve looked at. Pittsburgh should be better than last year and is a nice early season road test. Notre Dame comes in for a night game in what should be an electric atmosphere, charged with the Irish remembering the flag planting that occurred at the 50 in South Bend last fall. Conference play starts with Illinois but gets tough in a hurry with back to back contests with Michigan and OSU. The Spartans miss out on Wisconsin and Iowa again this fall, a definite advantage in the Big Ten race. A season without a bowl berth would be devastating to the future of this program. This offense is too good not to lead the team to at least seven if not a handful more wins. State will beat the teams it should and end much stronger than it has the past few seasons. An upset or two along the way would be the difference between a good and a great season.
OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 5-3 (wins over Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota)
Overall: 8-4, 5th in the conference, Champs Sports Bowl berth