Michigan State Spartans season preview
Mark Dantonio enters his 11th year in East Lansing, and has boosted an impressive resume to date. He's won 8 of 10 against Michigan, and has split his last four meetings with Ohio State, the winner being the one who wins the Big Ten the past three years. He has won three Big Ten titles, one Rose Bowl, and last year he made the 2nd annual College Football Playoffs, losing to eventual champion Alabama.
The Spartans run a pro style offense that mixes in some spread option elements such as jet sweeps and bubble screens, and this year promises to feature more read option plays due to improved athleticism at the QB spot.
The defense runs the much ballyhooed press quarters man, known for lots of man coverage, lots of blitzing (especially in key situations), and mixed in Cover 3 zone. They've been one of the top run defenses in the country for years now, and until a hiccup the past two years, known as the "No Fly Zone" for their tight pass defense that has led to three drafted and plenty of drafted corners, two drafted safeties, and several undrafted free agents making NFL rosters.
The Spartans are also known for (usually) solid special teams and a talent for calling a well-timed trick play that seems to turn the tide of a game going down in the loss column. As long as Dantonio remains the head coach, MSU promises to be a team that belongs in the conversation for the Big Ten championship.
The head coach hoisting the Rose Bowl
Tyler O'Connor finally gets his chance after sitting behind Connor Cook for three years. He has one career start, and that was one of the worst places for a first time QB to begin, the Horseshoe. All he did was consistently move the chains against an aggressive Buckeye defense that couldn't rattle him. Tyler is a lot more athletic than any Spartan QB since Drew Stanton, so expect more read option and designed QB runs than we've seen here in awhile.
His backup is Damion Terry, the former 4 star QB from Pennsylvania. Terry is even more athletic than Tyler, but not as consistent. He'll still play in specific package situations with an eye on the starting job next year.
Only on three occasions have the Spartans failed to have a 1, 000 yard rusher under Dantonio. Last year was the first time they finished with double digit wins. But the backs were all young, considering sophomore Gerald Holmes was the most experienced of the three main ball carriers, and all looked solid at various points.
Madre London (Sophomore-RS) opened the season as the starter, but got injured. He is by far the fastest of the three and the big play threat. L.J. Scott (Sophomore) was the leading rusher and scorer. He was also the most ballyhooed out of high school. Gerald Holmes (Junior-RS) doesn't have London's speed or Scott's power. But he was the most consistent, and didn't fumble, Scott's issue last year. Last year the Spartans rode the hot hand. They'll likely do it again this year.
Delton Williams (Senior) is out of the doghouse after a lost junior season in which he was originally supposed to be the lead back. He's moved to fullback, where he'll be expected to open holes for whomever the lead back is. Spartans will also figure out ways to get the ball in his hands as well.
This is the 2nd deepest part of the roster.
Questions galore here with the graduation of Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings, and DeAnthony Arnett.
The only returning starter is former running back R.J. Shelton. Last year he lined up in the slot a lot, a position the Spartans use frequently with jet sweeps and bubble screens. He was the second most consistent receiver last year behind Burbridge, and looks to become the next Spartan senior WR to have a big year.
Monty Madaris is the other senior, once as highly regarded as Burbridge coming out of high school. Injuries have derailed his career, but he's the deep threat MSU was missing last year.
While other candidates who've played, such as Felton Davis III and Darrell Stewart, are expected to see the field, the big names who can make an impact are true freshmen, both highly regarded, Donnie Corley and Justin Layne. Corley has been hyped as a playmaker, and Layne fits the protype of an outside MSU receiver.
At tight end, two fifth year seniors return in Josiah Price and former DE Jamal Lyles. These two have been together for three years now as the top 2 TEs, and should ease the pressure on the receiver corps. Both are expecting to make an impact this year. Lyles would also like to play some DE, his natural position.
Find the inches (Dantonio slogan)
Questions on the line
Brian Allen enters his fourth year starter at left guard. Kodi Kieler moved to center after starting last year at right tackle. Benny McGowan made several starts at both guard spots due to injury. So the interior is experienced and set.
The tackle spots, not so much. David Beedle, a sophomore, starts at left tackle. Former guard, and JUCO transfer, Miguel Machado opens at right tackle. Ironically, their backup, Dennis Finley, has made one more start at tackle than both combined. He will likely resume his starting spot once he puts weight back on after recovering from a broken leg last year.
The second biggest question mark on the team.
The defensive line
Malik McDowell won a starting job as a sophomore, and is projected to be an early draft pick and 1st team All-American as a junior. Ask the Tide interior line and Derrick Henry (season low 22 for 82) how hard this kid is to block. The Spartans plan to move him around to take advantage of his athleticism, and avoid double teams.
Demetrius Cooper sat behind Calhoun for the past two years, and was 2nd on the team in sacks as a backup. The junior is expected to be a force this year.
After that....three starters graduated. Former starter Damon Knox gave up his pursuit of football to finish his degree. Projected starter Craig Evans, Jr. (another guy the Tide struggled blocking) faced disciplinary action and transferred, as did someone in the mix for the strong side DE job, Montez Sweat. And then rotation guy Cassius Peat transferred with academic issues. Not a good offseason for Ron Burton's guys.
Evan Jones, a 5th year senior, is expected to start at the DE spot opposite Cooper. The battle for other tackle spot is ongoing between former Cornhusker graduate transfer Kevin Williams and redshirt freshman Raequan Williams.
A host of freshmen from Dantonio's best recruiting class ever DEs, Josh King and Auston Robertson, and DTs, Naquan Jones and Mike Panasiuk, will try to find their way on the field to help out.
Winning the Big Ten title
The deepest group on the team, by far.
Riley Bullough (senior) returns in the middle, Jon Reschke (junior) returns on the strong side. David Dowell surprised by cracking the rotation as a true freshman, and is battling junior Chris Frey on the weak side. Both saw the field last year, Frey as nickel rusher. Junior Shane Jones and sophomore T.J. Harrell will see action as well. Ed Davis is also likely to return after missing all of last year with a knee injury. He's a 6th year senior. The state of the Spartan linebacker corps is that if Davis, a former 2 year starter, can contribute anything this year, it will be a bonus.
Teams have countered the press quarters man by getting backers out in space. The Spartans have countered by getting more athletic at the LB position. This year, with the most athletic group of backers yet, we'll see if MSU succeeded.
For the last two years, the No Fly Zone has been a myth due to injury and inconsistency. But after a year that saw numerous secondary combinations due to injury, including three true freshmen starting in Ann Arbor, the Spartans boast a lot of experience.
CB Darian Hicks was supposed to be the next great MSU corner, but struggled until late last year. He finally lived up to the hype, and is expected to have a solid senior year. Vayante Copeland looked to be the next shut down corner until a neck injury ended his year. He'll start on the other side. Demetrius Cox (Sr) was a highly rated safety out of high school, but played out of position at corner most last year. He, and the secondary, seemed to settle down when he returned to his natural position at free safety. Montae Nicholson struggled as a sophmore, but got better as the year went on. He'll start at strong safety. CB Tyson Smith, S Khari Willis, and S Grayson Miller all started as true freshman.
This is a deep and talented group with a lot to prove.
Geiger had struggled since a great freshman year, but looks to build off a solid late finish, including hitting the game winner in the Horseshoe. Jake Hartbarger struggled early as a freshman but began winning the field position battle as the season wore on. The coverage units were solid as always, and once again the Spartan special teams stole a game, this time in the Big House.
The return units have not been special since Martin graduated five years ago
Good: Wisconsin, Michigan, Rutgers, Northwestern,BYU, and Ohio State all come to East Lansing, meaning the road to Indianapolis literally runs through East Lansing. The road schedule is Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and Penn State in conference.
Bad: Notre Dame is road game out of conference. They have 15 days between Furman and Notre Dame, and no other byes the rest of the year, meaning this could be a beat up team by the time they host the Buckeyes, and could be a tired team by the time they face the Nittany Lions in the season finale. Indiana and BYU are classic trap games, and they travel to Maryland between their homecoming, against Northwestern, and the Michigan game.
Summary: The schedule isn't conducive to running the table.
This still looks like at least another 10 win season. Can they win the Big Ten? Absolutely. This team isn't going away any time soon. That they get most of their toughest games at home helps too. But they can't afford a let up against the lesser teams, and they will be dealing as the hunter this year, as the defending Big Ten champions.
Prediction: Spartans finish 10-2, losing to Indiana in an upset, and Ohio State. But Michigan beats the Buckeyes, giving the Spartans the East, and they win the Big Ten, before losing the national title game to a returning Alabama squad, this time in a much closer game.
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