April 6, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's returning wide-receiving corps amassed eight catches for 103 yards as a group last season, or the equivalent of one slightly above-average game for the NFL-bound B.J. Cunningham.
That leaves a disparity of 169 catches and 2,376 yards between the aerial production Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and Brad Sonntag have taken with them to post-collegiate football life, and that of sophomore Tony Lippett, sophomore Keith Mumphery and junior Bennie Fowler, who are the only current wideouts ever to catch a pass while wearing a Spartan uniform.
The discrepancy becomes even more pronounced when the numbers of departed tight ends Brian Linthicum (31 catches for 364 yards) and Garrett Celek (three for 35), minus those of returning junior Dion Sims (12 for 99), who played much of last season with an injured hand, are taken into account.
One way Lippett & Co. could look at it is, they have a gaping hole of 191 catches and 2,676 yards to fill.
For the time being, second-year receivers coach Terrence Samuel is covering the chasm in spring drills with a "blank sheet of paper" - his term for dozen or so inexperienced candidates vying to be the next B.J., Keshawn and Keith.
At this point, the concept of having to replenish the statistical vacuum is too daunting for MSU's relatively uninitiated receivers to consider, so, they aren't.
"B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol had tremendous numbers as a collective group, so it's very challenging," said Lippett (four for 44). "But we're not trying to compare ourselves to them. We're just trying to take what they taught us and apply it along with what we're being taught by our coach (Samuel)."
It's not that the new receivers have any misgivings about being able to pick up where their predecessors left off.
"Oh, we plan on hitting the ground running, but for now, it's a slow process," Lippett said. "We're trying to take it one day at a time and keep getting better, while competing every day against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten."
Plus, it's not like the receivers are being asked to reinvent the position.
The biggest thing Cunningham, Martin and Nichol bequeathed to their successors, Lippett said, "would have to be ability and confidence. They left me by saying, OK, you're one of the top receivers coming back for the Michigan State offense, so just go out there, relax, play hard, play fast and just play with confidence."
Nevertheless, with so many new moving parts, the MSU offense is bound to look unsettled in spring compared to last season's unit with three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins at the helm. On the plus side is the familiarity the receivers have with Andrew Maxwell, who's in line to take over the quarterbacking duties.
"I love Maxwell," Lippett said. "The communication between me and him, and us as a receiving corps, is great because last year we were all with the (No. 2 offense) and got a certain amount of connection from within that. It's not that difficult. We just have to keep getting better every day around him."
The receiving corps also has the potential to mature dramatically if Fowler, who is still recovering from the foot problems that kept him on the sideline most of last season, returns to the form he displayed while catching 14 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown as a red-shirt freshman in 2010. And, if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett is cleared to play immediately by the NCAA.
Arnett, the former Saginaw High speedster who switched schools to be closer to his ailing father, had 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns a Volunteer freshman last season. Arnett isn't expecting a decision on his hardship appeal for a couple of weeks, but said he's preparing as though he'll be allowed to play next season.
"You can't lower your standards at all," Arnett said. "Once I learn everything, get everything under control and everything situated, as far as learning the plays and not having to think as much, and playing fast, I feel like I can be a leader.
"I definitely think I can fill the void of being a big-time playmaker, and making plays when needed."
Bringing everybody up to speed, so they can play with as much speed as they possess, is one of Samuel's primary spring chores.
"Right now, they aren't playing fast because they aren't comfortable with the offense," he said. "It's just new to them. With having the senior receivers we had last year, those guys knew it before I even got in the room. These guys are having to make sure they truly understand the little subtle nuances of the position, and the concepts to get themselves open and be effective in the route."
Physically, the Spartans shouldn't look all that different when they line up. For example, Lippett (6-3, 192 pounds), Fowler (6-1, 215) and red-shirt freshman Juwan Caesar (6-4, 209), who's nursing a foot injury, could double for Cunningham (6-2, 215).
Mumphery (6-0, 208), red-shirt freshman Andre Sims Jr. (5-9, 187) and Arnett (5-11, 170) are cut from the same cloth as Martin (5-11, 189).
"Everybody is just going out there and being themselves," said Mumphery, who had two catches for 39 yards last season. "Everybody's got a skill-set and the competition is high. Everybody can do what needs to be done. We've got a lot of quick receivers like Keshawn, and I think I have the potential to be just as good as he is.
"There's pressure to get better, but with time everything will work itself out. Our chemistry is very good. Everybody tries to be a leader, and everybody's listens to what everybody has to say. We all like each other, but this is football - everybody's working to get a spot."
Before his role was dramatically limited last season because of the injury, which is protected during practice with a massive pad, Sims had three touchdown receptions to go with the three he had, along with 11 catches for 133 yards, in 2009. Fowler has MSU's only other touchdown catch among receivers.
Despite his experience, which is vast in comparison to the other tight ends - such as intense sophomore Andrew Gleichert and converted defensive end Denzel Drone - Sims is approaching his expanded role with great anticipation.
"I'm willing to do whatever," he said. "I just want to prepare myself for it and be in the best shape possible. I feel like I've have some big shoes to fill, considering that Brian and Celek (are gone). I learned a lot from those guys and I've got a lot of experience under my belt, so every day I'm just coming in and doing extra stuff to get better.
"Those other guys work hard also. It's only spring. We still have summer and then fall camp, so I think we'll be ready to go."