Big Ten Football Previews - Part V
Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...
6/26 update: Troubled defensive tackle Bobby Jones will transfer to Nebraska-Omaha, ending a tumultuous "tenure" with MSU. That leaves the Spartans even thinner at a position of concern.
Team: Michigan State Spartans
Tidbits ... Michigan State is one of only three programs not to win at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade. In fact, the last shared title for MSU was 1990 (4-way tie) and the last outright title was 1987. The Spartans’ last stretch of three (or more) consecutive losing seasons occurred from 1979 to 1983 – well before most anyone on the current roster was born.
2006 Prediction/actual: 8-4, 5-3 (5th), Champs / 4-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
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: RB Javon Ringer, RB Jehuu Caulcrick, WR T.J. Williams, TE Kellen Davis, LT Mike Gyetvai, LB Kaleb Thornhill, LB SirDarean Adams, FS Otis Wiley, K Brett Swenson
Key Losses: QB Drew Stanton, WR Kerry Reed, WR Matt Trannon, C Kyle Cook, DT Clifton Ryan, LB David Herron Jr., LS Brian Bury, P Brandon Fields
Looking Back ... Two words sum up the 2006 campaign in East Lansing: train wreck. If you left civilization during the third quarter of the Notre Dame game last September and didn’t come back until just now, you would probably be floored to know that somehow Michigan State managed to blow a seemingly bank vault safe fourth quarter lead and then managed but one win the rest of the season. Then again, this is Michigan State we’re talking about. If you witnessed the carnage and the rest of the mess that ensued, all you had to do was hearken back to 2005, even 2004 to realize this was more of the same from the Spartans – the derailment just happened a little earlier than in those seasons.
After starting hot and finishing in the tank for the third season in a row, John L. Smith was shown the door. A once promising marriage of Smith’s quirky, gunslinger style with Michigan State’s tradition ended with an in-season firing two weeks after State mustered the biggest second half comeback in D1 history, overcoming a 38-3 deficit at Northwestern to win 41-38. Lost in the debris was the fantastic career of quarterback Drew Stanton who tried in vain to do it all by himself for three years as the Spartans sputtered in consecutive stretch runs (5-16 in October & November). Out with Smith and in with Mark Dantonio. Spartans everywhere area holding out hope that after two consecutive head coaching failures, that Dantonio can restore the pride and winning ways that have been missing for far too long…
Outlook - Offense ... Another quarterback era has faded away in East Lansing. For the past three years, Drew Stanton tried to carry the Spartans on his back – sometimes with eye-popping success and other times with limited results. That seems to have been the case at Michigan State of late, as before Stanton, there was Jeff Smoker who had similar ups and downs. Truth be told, MSU’s offense has historically been at its best with a good – not great – quarterback at the helm. Someone steady, consistent and heady. Might that someone be the new man to step under center this fall? Brian Hoyer certainly won’t have to do it himself in an offense that reverts back to more of a pro-style attack, with emphasis on run first – not pass, as it had been under Smith – and strong use of the tight end. There are some nice weapons despite the loss of five starters. It all depends on how well the team continues to adjust to the new offensive sets.
The biggest loss on the offense was the departure of Drew Stanton to the NFL. Stanton was a gamer and gave the Spartans a chance to win in every game. Junior Brian Hoyer steps into the spotlight after biding his time as a serviceable backup to Stanton. The fourth-year player from Ohio has a stronger arm than Stanton, if not the uncanny ability to turn broken plays into head-shaking wonderments with his legs. All he needs to do is be consistent and keep the mistakes in check. The good news is that it isn’t as if he is totally green. He played in most of the second to last game in 2006 – after Stanton suffered a concussion – and nearly led the Spartans to their first win in State College in decades. He had a nice spring, until he fell flat in the Green & White game, but then again, half of his line and his best weapons played on the other side so I wouldn’t read too much into that.
It really comes down to Hoyer playing sound football and making good decisions. He has some nice weapons in his cache and shouldn’t have to do it all – all the time. The real concern here is with the depth. The transfer of Dom Natale to Rutgers last season will be felt in 2007 if Hoyer gets hurt. Heading into August, the Spartans have a walk-on (Clay Charles), redshirt freshman Connor Dixon and two true freshmen – Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles – in the fold to back Hoyer up. The prized recruit for 2007 – Lowell, MI signal caller Keith Nichol – rescinded his verbal last November and might well start for Oklahoma this fall. If he can start there, what might he have done for the Spartans? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Cousins and Foles are going to get a good shot to push Dixon and Charles for the second and third string roles. Cousins is a very cerebral quarterback that could be a sleeper. Foles was a late signee after rescinding his verbal to Arizona State amid a coaching change. My money is on Foles to step in and push Dixon for back-up duties but no matter who steps up, if Hoyer goes down, the Spartan offense will likely be in for a long season.
The biggest strength for the Michigan State offense, bar none, is in the backfield. That’s tremendous news as the Spartans look to be much more of a force running the ball this season than at any time under John L. Smith. Javon Ringer is the game-breaker and perhaps the most unheralded back in the Big Ten. He has tremendous speed and good power for a smaller tailback. He returned late last season from what was thought to be a season-ending knee injury and appears stronger than ever heading into fall camp. He should eclipse the 1,000 yard mark for the green and white this season.
The strength beyond Ringer is in the numbers. Jehuu Caulcrick showed his stuff as a freshman in a huge upset of Wisconsin and then again last year early in the debacle against Notre Dame. He is a change of pace guy with tremendous power and better-than-you’d-expect speed. He is an ideal short yardage guy and has a nose for the end zone. A.J. Jimmerson was a highly touted recruit and enters his third year with the program. The redshirt sophomore has been prone to the fumble early in his career and has struggled to pick up all of his blocking assignments, but he should see some time this fall. Incoming freshmen Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett may also push for time, but with the depth ahead of them, could redshirt and keep the stable of running backs full. In addition to the tailbacks, MSU will go back to utilizing a fullback with the new offensive system. The position is in a state of flux since the former regime did not employ a fullback, so until a couple of true fullbacks are brought in, the offense will opt to use converted linebacker Jeff McPherson or former tight end Dwayne Holmes in the role.
Aside from the loss of Stanton, the wide receiver position took the biggest hit in terms of personnel losses heading into this year. All three starters from a season ago have departed, and with them went 376 career receptions, 4,685 yards and 28 scores. Don’t cry for Hoyer though because as I mentioned, he has plenty of weapons in his cache. In fact, there really isn’t a lapse in the talent pool at all heading into 2007. The best of the best is probably sophomore T.J. Williams, a 6-3, 185-pounder with fantastic hands. He still needs to mature on and off the field, but has a world of talent and could be the go-to-guy for the Spartans aerial attack this fall. Senior Terry Love is the most experienced wide out and another one with loads of potential. He has shown flashes over his career and now gets a chance to shine. Juniors Devin Thomas and Deon Curry have been with the program even if they haven’t seen a ton of playing time as of yet. Thomas turned some heads in the spring though and also has great size. Others to watch are David Williams, a smaller, speedy receiver with the ability to make yards after the catch, Ryan Allison – a junior who has seen time on and off during his career, and incoming freshmen B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell and Chris Rucker. The bottom line is with less emphasis on the passing game, this unit can survive the loss of Trannon, Reed and Scott and more than likely never miss a beat. Heck, with the talent of the two Williams and Thomas, MSU might not miss the trio of starters that much anyway…
With the introduction of a new, more balanced offensive attack comes a far more important role for the tight ends. We’ve heard throughout his career, and even seen glimpses of, Kellen Davis’ talent and ability as a game changing receiver. Now we will see some consistent use of that talent. The Don Treadwell offense calls for much more use of the tight end than the previous staff’s. That bodes well for Davis and senior Eric Andino, who have become solid blockers but will now get the opportunity to impact the game in a different way. If either of them fails to provide consistency, redshirt freshman Charlie Gantt showed some promise during spring ball and will be right there to push for time. In addition, the new staff brought in three tight end recruits who may vie for time – Garrett Celek, David Duran and Kevin Pickelman. With more focus on the tight end, Hoyer has another viable weapon in his arsenal and the Spartans’ offense yet another option in its attack.
Michigan State returns four starters up front this fall, another situation that – on paper – bodes well for Brian Hoyer and the offense. The problem is the unit wasn’t very reliable last season as it suffered myriad injuries. Then again, that may be of benefit heading into the 2007 campaign. Why? Simple, several players got looks at multiple positions, which means depth and experience abound. The overall concern might be the adjustment to a different blocking scheme and style. This group needs to get much more physical than it was required to be under Dave Baldwin’s offense.
The biggest question up front is at the center position, where Kyle Cook has moved on and no one really stepped up in the way the coaches had hoped during spring practice. John Masters is the most likely candidate to take on the starting role and he saw ample playing time last fall, but he never separated from the pack in spring ball. A big key will be finding a reliable backup or contender for Masters at center. The rest of the line is fully in tact and, as aforementioned, has ample experience. Left tackle Mike Gyetvai is solid but sat out spring practice and the majority of the latter part of last season with a shoulder injury. He needs to stay healthy as he is a key to the continuity of the line. Left guard Pete Clifford can also play tackle and also brings a fifth year of experience to the fray. The right side was in flux during the spring, as neither returning starter shined as brightly as the new staff hoped. Jesse Miller is the most likely starter at right tackle, with the once highly touted Roland Martin returning at guard. The hope is that Martin in particular will burst onto the scene as he was expected to when he shunned Oklahoma for MSU a few years ago. The depth chart brings experience as well. Kenny Shane can plug in at guard and Rocco Cironi saw time as a true freshman last fall at the toughest spot on the line – left tackle. Jason Diehl, Tom Kaczmarek and Mike Bacon might also factor in, though Diehl and Kaczmarek have been injury prone and Bacon is a walk-on. The staff brought in four linemen with the 2007 signing class, but all four are more than likely candidates to redshirt.
The Spartans lost four highly skilled weapons on offense but really shouldn’t skip a beat in 2007. An offense that was middle of the pack (6th) in scoring, third in passing and ninth in rushing should be very well balanced overall and far better on the ground, again with a renewed focus on running the rock. If the injury bug bites at quarterback or even up front, it could be a different story, however. Don’t expect 40-point outbursts as often this season, but do expect more ball control and a sound all-around attack.
Outlook - Defense ... I’d like to think that one of the biggest reasons that Michigan State pursued and landed Mark Dantonio as head coach was his prowess as a defensive coach. He played a prominent role in coaching the secondary under Nick Saban’s watch, coordinated a defense that won the national title for Ohio State in 2002 and built Cincinnati on defense first. He brought with him a great, young, up and coming coordinator in Pat Narduzzi and will almost certainly change the face of this very reactive defense to a proactive, attacking group. Something needs to happen. Part of the problem for Drew Stanton was that he could never fully trust the defense to make stops. Last year’s group was average – at best. That needs to change in this transition year if the Spartans are to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
The first and foremost area that needs to be shored up is the defensive front. Starting tackles Clifton Ryan and David Stanton have moved on, leaving a sizeable hole in the middle. Ryan was one of those versatile linemen who gave it his all no matter his health or where he played on the line. Stanton was a JUCO guy that provided some spark, but he can be more easily replaced. The trouble is, there just isn’t much depth up the gut and what is there is relatively inexperienced. The best candidates to get the starting nod inside are junior Justin Kershaw, who moved to defensive tackle from defensive end in the spring, and either Ogemdi Nwagbuo (Sr.) or John Stipek (So.) at nose tackle. Kershaw has a great motor, Nwagbuo is a space eater and Stipek is a bull-nosed, wrestler-strong athlete that reminds Dantonio of former Buckeye Tim Anderson. Others that may be called upon to provide time in the middle are Bobby Jones (not the golfer) and J’Michael Deane.
There is a little more depth on the outside where Ervin Baldwin returns and looks to have a Julian Peterson type of year as a pass rusher. The pass rush has been absent since John L. Smith’s first year, when the team racked up nearly 50 sacks (2003). On the other side junior Brandon Long and fifth year senior Jonal Saint Dic are in a heated battle for the starting slot. Both will see significant time this season regardless of who gets the starting nod. Patrick Rigan and Reggie Graham are inexperienced but provide the depth at defensive end.
When push comes to shove, there are really four to six proven, reliable players in the mix and a bushel basket full of question marks. The new staff did manage to land some solid recruits for the defensive front, and that means any of the foursome of Ryan Wheat, Antonio Jeremiah, Ishmyl Johnson and Oren Wilson can be expected to see the field early. Not an ideal situation at a position where an extra year of strengthening, adding weight and adjusting to the pace of college ball can really pay dividends long term. But, it is what it is and the Spartans will have to make do. If the group can be above average, that will help the defense make some sound improvements over last year.
The position that will be interesting to watch is linebacker. David Herron Jr. has departed and he leaves a void, but two seniors return in Kaleb Thornhill and SirDarean Adams. Thornhill sat out spring ball to mend a bum knee and shoulder but has a ton of experience at middle linebacker. Adams might finally be ready to live up to his high school billing after his best winter and spring yet. He is also solidly entrenched at linebacker, whereas he was more of a hybrid defensive back/linebacker in the former scheme. If he can continue to attack rather than stay back and wait for the play to come to him, he will be a solid playmaker. The vacancy at SAM will be filled by either Adam Decker (So.) or Jon Misch (R-Fr.). The duo is young and relatively inexperienced but show great promise. Andrew Hawken (So.) and John Rouse (So.) are another pair of sophomores who will see the field this fall. The pair split time in the middle in place of Thornhill in the spring and bring good athleticism to the mix. Redshirt freshman Eric Gordon backs up Adams and has a load of potential as well. This might be the deepest the linebacking corps has been in some time and the youth will serve it well for the next few seasons to come. The key will be for the inexperienced players to gel well with Thornhill and Adams and to take advantage of a defense that is much more proactive than reactive.
To borrow a line from Hans and Franz of Saturday Night Live fame, “hear me know and believe me later.” The secondary – yes, the same secondary that has been a veritable patchwork of transplanted tailbacks and receivers for years – might actually be the strength of this defense. And no, not just because the defense is that bad. It simply has to do with the fact that some key components from last year that were unable to play due to injury – namely cornerback Ross Weaver – is back and really shores up that position. He will team up with Kendell Davis-Clark who had a nice season last year and is poised to step it up a notch in 2007. Most of the reason for optimism stems from the return of starting safeties Otis Wiley and Nehemiah Warrick. Wiley has been perhaps the steadiest contributor on defense since day one and Warrick is a big hitter with a better understanding of where to be and when to be there after getting a year under his belt. Toss in former walk-on Travis Key, who also has a knack for making plays, and State is in great shape at the safety position. The question heading into fall camp might be who fills out the depth chart, but again, for a change, there is some legitimate depth available, even if it might be on the younger side. Sophomores Roderick Jenrette and Dan Fortener have some ability at safety and another pair of sophomores – Ashton Henderson and Jeremy Ware are making some noise at the corner position. Freshman Chris Rucker will also likely get a shot at some playing time this fall. The depth is a little limited in general, but there are some true defensive backs in the mix for the first time in a long time and with any push from the front seven, this group might be able to force turnovers and turn the tide on the recent trend of October/November swoons…
The defense was better in 2006 than in 2005, but still did not do its part often enough or with enough consistency. The new staff hopes the system it has implemented will help rid the team of said issues. One thing is for sure, the communication problems and general look of ineptitude should be a thing of the past. The defense will be far more aggressive this year and while that may mean a big play surrendered here and there, it will also mean more sacks, more turnovers and more success. In particular, the difference in coverage preferred by this staff should make a secondary with some talent into one of the better groups in the league.
Outlook - Special Teams ... It’s really too bad that Brett Swenson isn’t a year older. Why? He would have been around to save MSU’s butt in games it lost due to the lack of a kicker in 2005! Alas, he is only a sophomore but one of the better kickers in the Big Ten. He nailed 15-19 tries last fall and is a great weapon to have when/if the offense stalls inside the 30. His range should be better this year as he has a year under his belt but really, so long as he matches last year, that will be a win for the special teams. Todd Boleski returns to handle kickoff duties – an important job now that kickoffs will come from the 30. The question in the kicking game is, who replaces Brandon Fields? Fields had one of the best careers of any punter in the Big Ten – ever. Spring ball showed no promise at this position, which means all the eggs are basically in the Aaron Bates basket. Bates comes in as a touted recruit this fall. The return game should be sound with plenty of speedy players to pick from.
9/1 – UAB
9/8 – BOWLING GREEN
9/15 – PITTSBURGH
9/22 – at Notre Dame
9/29 – at Wisconsin
10/6 – NORTHWESTERN
10/13 – INDIANA
10/20 – at Ohio State
10/27 – at Iowa
11/3 – MICHIGAN
11/10 – at Purdue
11/17 – PENN STATE
Key Games: 9/15 – Pittsburgh, 9/22 – at Notre Dame, 9/29 – at Wisconsin, 10/20 – at Ohio State, 11/3 – Michigan, 11/17 – Penn State
Prediction ... The Spartans have a flat-out brutal schedule in 2007. MSU faces eight bowl teams from last season, misses Illinois and Minnesota, while picking up road games at Iowa and Wisconsin. The front of the schedule should allow for some wins, but per the last few seasons, October and November are fraught with peril. UAB and Bowling Green are not the cupcakes they appear to be and while Pittsburgh and Notre Dame also replace quarterbacks, they will be no picnic either. The saving grace is that the first three are at home and South Bend has been Spartan Stadium south since 1997. It goes from tough to tougher for a week when the Spartans head to Wisconsin, then it eases a bit before a downright nasty five game stretch to end the season. In reality, anything more than six wins should means Coach of the Year honors for Dantonio. But, this team has arguably more talent than the 2003 team that John L. Smith turned around, and easily a better coach. MSU will play in December this year, but only by a hair.
OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Northwestern, Indiana and Penn State)
Overall: 6-6, T-7th in the conference, Insight Bowl berth