Aug. 28, 2010
By Larry Watts
Michigan State is focusing on the Rose Bowl in 2010, but the Spartans' greatest obstacle may be regaining the respect and trust among its fan base.
After an off-field incident after the team's banquet, multiple suspensions were handed down by head coach Mark Dantonio, and the depleted Spartans fell 31-21 to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl. Even though it was the third bowl appearance in three years under Dantonio, the Spartans finished the year 6-7 overall (4-4 Big Ten).
Five of those players return and must work their way back up the depth chart, which includes 14 returning starters, this fall. It is a team that may have the most depth in the skills positions and at linebacker in the Big Ten.
OFFENSE: If the offensive line can provide junior quarterback Kirk Cousins with enough time to put the ball in the hands of his playmakers, the Spartans have the potential to put a lot of points on the board. After winning the quarterback battle over Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol last fall, Cousins completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 2,680 yards and 19 touchdowns. His pass efficiency rating of 142.6 ranked third in the Big Ten. Junior B.J. Cunningham (48 catches, 641 yards) and senior Mark Dell (26, 449) were both primary targets, but their involvement in the altercation last November placed them in backup roles heading into camp. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Nichol, a junior, was moved to wide receiver in the Alamo Bowl and will remain there, but he still has the potential to hurt opponents with his arm. Junior Keshawn Martin is a threat every time he touches the ball. In 2009, he caught 18 passes for a team-high 22.8-yard average and had 18 carries for a 12.2 average. Charlie Gantt (6-5, 255) and Brian Linthicum (6-5, 240) shared starting duties last year at tight end and are both on the Mackey Award watch list. The two juniors combined for 42 receptions, 614 yards and four TDs last season. Sophomores Larry Caper (468 yards, 6 TDs) and Edwin Baker head a stable of talented running backs. They are expected to get a strong push from true freshmen Nick Hill and Le'Veon Bell. On the front line, senior D.J. Young (6-5, 315) has moved over from right tackle to left tackle while junior Joel Foreman (6-4, 306) started all but one game at left guard in 2009. Converted defensive lineman John Stipek (6-5, 292), a senior, will start at center. Sophomore Chris McDonald 6-5, 295) will get the call at right guard while the right tackle job was up for grabs between junior Jared McGaha (6-6, 295) and senior J'Michael Deane (6-5, 312). Redshirt freshman David Barrent (6-8, 312) is also in the hunt.
DEFENSE: An abundance of outstanding linebackers, led by senior All-American Greg Jones on the outside, has prompted the Michigan State coaching staff to show more 3-4 alignments this fall. Jones (6-1, 235), who has 359 career tackles, passed up the NFL after being named the media's Big Ten Defensive player of the year and earning his second first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009. Returning starter Eric Gordon (92 tackles in 2009), a senior, gives the Spartans a veteran presence in the middle. Sophomore Chris Norman played in all 13 games last season and is holding the edge at weakside, or star, linebacker, but redshirt freshman Denicos Allen has been making strides. Senior Jon Misch should also see playing time while the Spartans are counting on highly touted incoming freshmen Max Bullough and William Gholston to make an instant impact. At 6-7 and 237 pounds, Gholston will be able to line up at either end or linebacker. Senior Colin Neely (6-1, 258), who had seven tackles for loss last year but missed the spring with a shoulder injury, returns at end and sophomore Jerel Worthy (6-3, 296) is back at tackle. Sophomore Blake Treadwell (6-3, 277) and junior Kevin Pickelman (6-4, 278) combined for 31 tackles last season and are battling for the other tackle slot. Sophomore Tyler Hoover (6-7, 270) is being pushed by redshirt freshman Denzel Drone (6-2, 252) at the other end when Michigan State shows a four-man front. The secondary needs to rebound after yielding an average of 267.6 yards passing (112th nationally) and recording only six interceptions last year. The Spartans have four players returning with starting experience, led by senior cornerback Chris L. Rucker. Sophomore Johnny Adams, a starter in 2008 who missed nearly all of last year with a shoulder injury, is back at the other corner. Both senior Marcus Hyde and junior Trenton Robinson started seven games at strong safety and free safety, respectively. True freshmen corners Darqueze Dennard and Mylan Hicks along with safety Isaiah Lewis are pushing for playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punting duties again fall into the capable hands of senior Aaron Bates, who averaged 41.6 yards per attempt in 2009, placing 23 of his kicks inside the opposition's 20-yard line. However, the kicking job is still a concern as the Spartans try to find a replacement for Brett Swanson. A 2010 leader between redshirt freshman Kevin Muma and sophomore Dan Conroy had yet to emerge early in fall camp. Martin will again be the main man on returns, where he averaged 28.9 yards on kickoff returns and 7.4 on punts.
MISCELLANEOUS: Starting with the Sept. 4 home opener against Western Michigan, the Spartans don't leave the state of Michigan for their first seven games. Their second game with Florida Atlantic will be at Ford Field in Detroit and their sixth game is at Michigan. The first of only three true road tests will be Oct. 23 at Northwestern. Former Spartans Brad Van Pelt and John Pingel, two College Football Hall of Fame inductees, will be added to the school's "Ring of Fame" before the Sept. 18 contest with Notre Dame.