Aug. 29, 2009
By Larry Watts
After four losing seasons in five years, the Michigan State football program has been on a rise since Mark Dantonio's arrival in 2007. The Spartans were 7-6 and tied for seventh in the Big Ten in his first season and followed it up compiling a 9-4 record and jumping to a tie for third place (6-2) in the conference last year while playing in their first New Year's bowl game since 2000.
Despite losing their quarterback, tailback and the right side of their offensive line, the Spartans have high expectations and plan to take the next step in 2009. Buoyed by solid recruiting classes under Dantonio, there's plenty of reason for optimism in East Lansing.
OFFENSE: The departure of quarterback Brian Hoyne and tailback Javon Ringer opened the doors for a very competitive spring. At quarterback, sophomore Kirk Cousins and Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol, a sophomore, were running neck and neck coming into fall camp. Cousins, who appeared in six games last year and completed 32 of 43 passes for 310 yards, appeared to have a slight edge, but both quarterbacks possess the ability to give the Spartans a dangerous air attack. The battle at tailback probably won't be sorted out until just before the Sept. 5 opener with Montana State. At 235 pounds, sophomore Ashton Leggett is a bruising runner and he was being pushed hard by redshirt freshman Caulton Ray during the spring, but incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper possess a lot of talent and could be major factors by the Big Ten schedule. Fifth-year senior (FB) Andrew Hawken is one of seven starters returning to the offense. With six of the top seven receivers returning from 2008, the winner of the quarterback derby will be blessed with a number of options. Junior Mark Dell (18.9 yards per catch) and speedy senior Blair White (43 receptions, 659 yards) can be game changers while sophomores B.J. Cunningham (41 catches) and Keshawn Martin are expecting big years. Junior Charlie Gantt, a returning starter at tight end, is on the watch list for he Mackey Award. Returning starters (C) Joel Nitchman, a senior, (G) Joel Foreman, a sophomore, and (T) Rocco Cironi, a senior returning from a shoulder injury, give the Spartans a veteran presence on the left side. Sophomore Jared McGaha moves in at right guard while junior J'Michael Deane, a converted defensive lineman, takes over at right tackle.
DEFENSE: Preseason Big Ten defensive player of the year Greg Jones, a junior, heads a talented group of eight returning starters, including the entire linebacker group. Jones, who led the Spartans with 127 tackles, including 14 for losses, last year, will be operating out of the middle of the linebacking corps, which is loaded with speed. He will be flanked by junior Eric Gordon (85 tackles) at the SAM and senior Brandon Denson, a converted safety, at the WILL. Up front, senior (DE) Trevor Anderson is coming off a 2008 season with eight sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Junior Oren Wilson returns to start at nose guard. Junior Colin Neely and sophomore David Rolf figure to share time at the other defensive end spot while sophomore Kevin Pickelman and redshirt freshman Jerel Worthy could do the same at the other tackle. Seven of the eight regulars in 2008 return to the secondary. Cornerbacks Ross Weaver, a senior, and Chris L. Rucker, a junior, have both been slowed by injuries in previous seasons. Rucker and senior Jeremy Ware will get the call at corner for the opener with Montana State. Fifth-year senior Danny Fortener, a returning starter, and junior Marcus Hyde will line up at the safety spots. Sophomore Trenton Robinson and fifth-year senior Kendell Davis-Clark also figure to get plenty of reps at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Michigan State's kicking game is in the very capable hands of veterans Brett Swenson and Aaron Bates at placekicker and punter, respectively. Swenson, a senior and second-team All-Big Ten honoree last year, is closing in on Spartan school records for field goal attempts and extra points. He was 22-of-28 on field goals, including 7-of-10 from 40 yards or longer, and perfect on all 34 extra-point attempts in 2008. Bates, a junior, improved his punting average from 39.7 as a sophomore to 42.0 last year. Top options in the return game included Martin and sophomore Glenn Winston, who rejoined the team this summer after a four-month jail sentence.
MISCELLANEOUS: With four of the final six games at home, the key for the Spartans is getting off to a great start. After home contests with Montana State and Central Michigan, Michigan State hits the road to Notre Dame and Wisconsin, followed by a home date with Michigan and a trip to Illinois. The Spartans do not face Ohio State this year ... Spartan fans are hoping the balance of power in the state of Michigan has finally shifted. Last-year's 35-21 victory over Michigan ended a six-year losing streak to the rival Wolverines ... By finishing No. 24 in last year's final national polls, the Spartans cracked the final national ranking list for the first time this decade.