Despite Significant Personnel Losses, Expectations Continue To Rise
March 28, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - No one has given Tyler Hoover the title of "Gramps" just yet "but I have a feeling I'm getting it soon," the defensive lineman said Tuesday after Michigan State's first spring practice of 2012. That term of endearment is usually bestowed upon one of the team's so-called old-timers, and with his full beard he certainly looks the part.
However, as a fifth-year senior and member of head coach Mark Dantonio's second recruiting class, Hoover is among the relatively few Spartans who fit the bill.
Just five seniors are listed in the current starting lineup, and another eight, or so, scholarship seniors show up on the spring depth chart or injured list.
Michigan State's chronological profile is that of a young team, but when cumulative games started and minutes played, varsity letters won and overall experience is taken into account, the Spartans are old beyond their years.
It's no wonder, therefore, that a drop-off from back-to-back 11-win seasons, a Big Ten championship in 2010 and a Legends Division title in '11 and an Outback Bowl victory over Georgia isn't being anticipated by Dantonio.
If anything, expectations continue to rise despite significant personnel losses at the quarterback and receiver positions.
"No way (is this a young team)," Hoover said. "A lot of our young guys have picked up experience and two years ago (the coaches) started playing younger guys. This is a young-age but older-experience kind of team."
Even MSU's seniors are young, in a manner of speaking. Right offensive tackle Fou Fonoti and nose tackle Anthony Rashad White are junior-college transfers with just one and two NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision seasons behind them, respectively.
Hoover played in a total of 26 games from '09-10, but injuries limited him to one game last season and two in '08. After lining up as a defensive end during his first four seasons, Hoover is starting anew at defensive tackle.
"Coach D asked me today before the meeting, `How many spring balls is this for you?' " Hoover said. "This is No. 5, so I know what I'm doing and I can learn faster."
Michigan State's stockpile of young, experienced players, along with talented inexperienced upstarts, has greatly improved overall depth and the level of competition at each position.
"The competition was always there, but still it wasn't as unique as it is now where you're really fighting your hardest each practice to stay No. 1," Hoover said.
The Spartans' primary areas of concern are the quarterback and receiver positions, but "concern" is in the eye of the beholder. Leader extraordinaire Kirk Cousins won't be calling the signals anymore, but Andrew Maxwell, a red-shirt junior, has been studying the quarterback position intimately for three years and is ready to assume control.
Tony Lippett started five games last season and Bennie Fowler will resume his role as a top contender for a starting job once his foot injury clears up. The situation on the flank will brighten even more if DeAnthony Arnett, a transfer from Tennessee, is granted a waiver from having to sit out a season by the NCAA.
Meantime, if not for a hand injury, Dion Sims would have challenged for a starting job at tight end last season.
The offensive line has made a remarkable transformation from the start of last season, when injuries wreaked havoc and players were switching positions from defense to offense on a regular basis, to now.
While left guard Joel Foreman has graduated, there's a legitimate starter at every spot, and even at some back-up positions. For example, No. 2 left tackle Skyler Burkland was the starter last season before hurting his ankle.
"So we've got experience there, and I think this is really the strongest offensive line group we've had since we've been here, and we've got numbers," Dantonio said. "I look around the conference right now and people are having a hard time with their numbers in terms of having a spring football game."
The Spartans were in that situation as recently as 2003 when there weren't enough offensive linemen to fill out two squads.
"We've got numbers on both the offensive line and defensive line which will enable us to do that really throughout the entire spring," Dantonio said.
Then there are the uber-talented underclassmen who are still just getting started. It's worth noting that middle linebacker Max Bullough has two years of eligibility remaining as does defensive end William Gholston and running back Le'Veon Bell.
And there are more waiting in the wings, such as red-shirt freshman defensive end Shilique Calhoun, outside linebacker Taiwan Jones, who's starting in place of injured senior Chris Norman, and safety Jairus Jones.
"People want to look at recruiting and say we've got the No. 1 class, the No. 10 class, whatever it is," Dantonio said. "The bottom line is how many games you win at the end of the season. That is the bottom line. The second bottom line is how many guys you have returning.
"What you've got to do is perform on the field, not be complacent, stay healthy, and you have to do the job. I really don't care who plays. I look for production."
Maxwell would be surprised if any of MSU's players rest on their laurels, because if they do, they'll be passed by.
"I think it's a testament to our coaches not only in recruiting but in developing our young players," Maxwell said. "I was thinking about it today - we didn't graduate that many people and we still don't have that many seniors on the team. We're a young team that's developing and getting better.
"We've got seven or eight (offensive linemen) who've started football games for this team, and with only five spots, there's going to be a lot of competition between a lot of good guys with a lot of talent. That's just going to force everyone to elevate their level of play and make the coaches make a choice as to the best five to put on the field. It's going to be the same at the receiver position, and that's what you need.
"It's a good problem to have."
Fonoti's forced development last season is paying dividends this spring because he's an established starter with low mileage.
"It's weird to be considered an old guy because I haven't even been out here for a full year," Fonoti said. "But there are a lot of us who've gotten our feet wet. We've got a lot of depth and we're just going to work on getting better day-by-day. From the first string, to the second string to the third string, these guys are extremely talented."
Michigan State's young defensive linemen "are freaks, athletic-wise, and once they start learning the defense, you're going to see them making plays," said Hoover.
Dantonio even compared Calhoun to former MSU great Julian Peterson, who wrapped up his Spartan career when Calhoun was about 7 years old.
"I feel good he thinks of me that highly and I hope I can keep it up so he can have me in his heart as that good of a player," Calhoun said. "I don't know Julian Peterson, but I heard he was a very good player and I'm going to try to work up to that expectation.
"Right now, (the returning veterans) know how it feels to be in the game and when the coaches tell them what to do, they know how to get it done. What I'm trying to do is better understand how to get things done. It's not that big of a gap, but it's definitely there. They know a little more than me and I'm just trying to gain that knowledge.
"But, they're willing to share and I'm willing to listen. I'm happy we are who we are and I just want to grow with this team."
Regardless of what the Spartans accomplished the last two seasons, Bullough sees even better days ahead as their young depth continues to mature.
"It's always a good thing when you've got guys who have two and three years left to play but have also seen quite a bit of action before this year," he said. "I think the chemistry that was here last year is still here. It's just a matter of fitting a few puzzle pieces here and there.
"The fight is still burning from last year. We still haven't been to the Rose Bowl as a class or even an era yet. We're excited to try to fulfill that challenge this year. One of the main goals on my template is to win the Big Ten Championship and go to the Rose Bowl. That'd be a huge step for this program."
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