2012 is going to be a a benchmark year for the Spartans, and many questions exist. Can they replace their star quarterback? Who is going to be catching the balls? How will William Gholston fare without Jerel Worthy? Not to mention, can Dantonio finally put the Spartans among the elite in the country?
2011 Record: 11-3, 7-1 Big Ten
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 8
Mark Dantonio is entering his sixth season as head coach. Dantonio has studied under such coaches as Jim Tressel and Nick Saban, Glen Mason and Earle Bruce. Naturally, he was the pick for the Spartans since he has a coaching history of disliking Michigan. So far, he has a record of 44-22 in East Lansing, and an overall record of 62-39. What matters the most is the 44 wins. That shows a lot more consistency than Spartans were used to before he arrived. Long gone is Bobby Williams and John L. Smith (now currently HC at Arkansas). Spartan fans have come to love Dantonio's form of football: smashmouth running, accurate passing and a suffocating defense.
Dantonio's number one priority this season is finding a capable quarterback to replace Kirk Cousins. Cousins, after all, did set the record with most TD passes ever by a Spartan QB with 66. He also set many other records which will be difficult to replicate, much less surpass. Enter Andrew Maxwell. A 4th year junior, he is the heir apparent to the throne. He's spent the last two years as Cousins' understudy, and has seen action in nine career games, completing 57 percent of his passes (29-for-51) for 294 yards and one touchdown. They're not bad stats, but do consider they all came against teams like Indiana, CMU, Florida Atlantic, and Youngstown State. This past spring he was sidelined with a sprained knee, but appears to be healthy heading into training camp. Backing Maxwell up is sophomore Connor Cook. Cook gained valuable reps during the spring when Maxwell was sidelined, and may even see playing time this season if Maxwell gets hurt or falters. Time might tell a different story, but having such inexperience behind center is never a good thing.
Dantonio's second priority? Figuring out who will be catching the ball. Gone is reception leader BJ Cunningham, all-purpose weapon Keshawn Martin, former QB-turned dynamic WR Keith Nichol, and two great tight ends, one of them being Brian Linthicum. So what do they have this season? Let's start with DeAnthony Arnett, a hardship transfer from Tennessee. Arnett was a 4* recruit when he went to Tennessee, and was only the 4th target on the field. From what I understand, his father was sick and he wanted to transfer back to a school in Michigan. Unfortunately, Michigan didn't have any open scholarships at that time (thanks Darryl Stonum), and so he went to East Lansing. There he figures to be the top target along with Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphrey, and tight end Dion Sims. Converted defensive end to tight end Denzel Drone might be a dark horse star. Tight end Drew Stevens medically retired earlier this year due to back surgery, but I'm not sure how much he could have contributed anyway.
The bright spot offensively is the running game. Last year they had a three headed monster in Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, and Larry Caper. This season Baker is gone, but that probably won't cause a hiccup. In fact, most thought Bell was better than Baker last year anyway. Last year, Bell ran for almost 1,000 yds and 13 TDs, and Caper is well suited to the third-down back role. With 8 returning offensive lineman, I wouldn't be shocked if MSU had a 1,000 yd rusher this season.
One key will be OT Dan France, as he will need to anchor the left hand side of the Spartan offensive line with Blake Treadwell coming over from center to fill in the spot left by four-year starter Joel Foreman. With Chris McDonald and Fou Fonoti on the right side of Maxwell, he'll surely enjoy plenty of time to go through his passing tree reads.
Now that the offense is going to be making up a lot of ground, the defense will be right there to try and pick up the slack. Now considered to be one of the top 10 defenses in the nation, last season's Spartans finished ranked No 6 in the country in total defense. This season will be no different.
In the preseason rankings, MSU has the 13th ranked defense, and 1st in the B1G Ten according bleacherreport.com. They will rally behind such players as defensive end William Gholston, cornerback Johnny Adams, and defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White. According to
NFLDraftscout.com, the Spartans have seven defensive players ranked in the top 15 nationally in their class at their respective positions. Michigan State has four players on the 2012 Bednarik Award Watch list, which ties Alabama and LSU for the most players selected from one school, with Gholston and Adams among those players. Denicos Allen and Max Bullough round out that list. Bullough led the team in tackles and is the heart of the defense and Allen is right behind him as the resident pass-rusher. Remember, Gholston, along with DE Marcus Rush, combined for 28 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks. Add in Allen's 18.5 tackles for loss and you start to figure out why offenses foudt it hard to move on the Spartan defense.
While losing Jerel Worthy to the Packers would be a huge loss for most teams, I wouldn't be surprised if the Spartan defense doesn't flinch. All-Big Ten honorable mention tackle Kevin Pickelman and Blake Pacheco are also gone from the team which leaves a sizable hole at defensive tackle. The defensive end position is loaded, so they're going to move Tyler Hoover to the tackle spot. Hoover was injured all of last season and has spent a lot of that time bulking up, so moving to the interior makes sense. Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge, Anthony Rashad, Corey Freeman and a number of redshirt freshmen should compete for playing time at tackle.
The other big loss for the defense was first-team All-Big Ten free safety Trenton Robinson. Kurtis Drummond and Jairus Jones might be able to fill in that spot, but it looks shaky at best. Robinson showed a lot of poise and leadership skills that will be hard to replace. However, surrounding the position with some of the conference's best talent will make the new replacement's job a lot easier. Dantonio has already pinpointed cornerback Darqueze Dennard as a potential team captain and leader. Isaiah Lewis and Johnny Adams also return with plenty of snaps and second-team All-Big Ten honors. The secondary has a lot of depth, but if an injury happens to Dennard, they could unravel.
Recruiting Spotlight: For the most part, Michigan State's massive returns and depth will prevent many freshmen from making a serious impact. There are only so many positions on the field and with almost every predicted starter to be above a true freshman, the 2012 recruiting class will probably not have a big impact this year unless something dramatic happens. The players that seem the most likely to make an impact are 4* wide receiver Aaron Burbridge and 4* safety Demetrius Cox. The odds should be against either starting, but they do play at some positions that are relatively unproven for the Spartans. Obviously, one of the biggest questions for next year are the receivers for Michigan State, but the loss of Trenton Robinson will have to be addressed as well. Cox will probably not have a starting spot, but I think there is a good chance he seems the field at some point. Burbridge is considered the best recruit in Michigan State's 2012 class and if he is anything close to his hype, he should be on the field significantly.
2012 Outlook: The schedule is tough for the Spartans in 2012. They open against Boise St, and while Boise has lost some firepower last year, Chris Petersen knows how to keep them competitive. They have Notre Dame at home, and that's becoming quite a rivalry and for awhile the away team seemed to pull out the win. Following later in the season are road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin, with a Nebraska home date after that shows a tough patch. Last season they had such a run that included Ohio State and came out on top. This season won't be the same. They lack a proven quarterback, and basically have no wide receiver core to speak of. Green Nation will have only their defense to rely on, and if they fall behind early in games, they will not have the offense to come back with. With Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke pulling in the all star recruiting classes that they have, Dantonio is being left in the dust. The window will be closing in on the Spartans shortly. They've had consecutive 11-win seasons for the first time in school history, and they won't make it a three-peat.
Michigan State Predictions:
Big Ten Finish: 4th
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Medium to High
Upset Status: Medium to High
Bowl Status: Medium Bowl