April 10, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It took Bennie Fowler less than a second to quantify the receiving corps' responsibility for Michigan State's drop-off in offensive production last season.
"Ninety-five percent," he said after Tuesday's spring practice in the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.
While the assessment may appear to be unduly harsh at first blush - even when MSU's well-documented struggles in the aerial department are given full consideration - it should be pointed out that Fowler is majoring in economics.
The numbers don't lie.
The Spartans' total yardage fell from 5,466 in 2011 to 4,671 in '12. Passing production slipped from a school-record 3,535 (252.5 per game) with three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins at the helm to 2,729 (209.9) with his successor, Andrew Maxwell. Scoring plummeted from 434 points (31 per game) to 260 (20).
Fowler's credibility in this matter is further enhanced by first-hand experience.
Although he had a team-high 524 receiving yards on 41 catches, MSU's top four wide receivers - including Keith Mumphery (515 on 42), Tony Lippett (392 on 36) and Aaron Burbridge (364 on 29) - barely combined to outdo running back Le'Veon Bell's rushing total, 1,795-1,793.
Fowler didn't even factor in Bell's 167 receiving yards on 32 catches, 29 passing yards on one attempt and 64 kickoff and punt return yards.
"Well, Le'Veon rushed for more than 1,700 yards, so you can't blame it on the running game," Fowler said. "So, we take the blame."
After giving the offense the "macro" treatment, Fowler has determined that MSU's greatest progress this spring has to come from a receiving unit that fell well short of the standard set by B.J. Cunningham, who holds school records for career receptions and yardage (218 for 3,086), NFL-bound Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol the previous season.
"The guys responded (last season), but the receivers have to be better at making plays down the field," he said. "(Game) experience was hard for us to come by. Getting the play-calling down and us being comfortable, in sync and on time is probably one of our biggest improvements so far."
"It's probably like what happened from Kirk's first year starting with B.J., Keshawn and Mark (Dell), and the way they picked it up going into that 11-1 season (in 2010). The way we're picking up our timing right now and understanding where we're going to be on the field is on the way to that."
The receivers bore the lion's share of criticism, especially for dropping an inordinate number of key passes, as the Spartans labored mightily to turn out a 7-6 record. But Fowler, who had 16 catches for 195 yards in two injury-plagued seasons before taking the torch from Cunningham, believes the adversity will pay dividends in 2013.
"I learned a lot from it and I don't feel like I'll make a lot of the mistakes I made last year," he said. "I hadn't played in that big of a role before and I had some faults here and there, but I took it with a grain of salt and I was able to move on. We didn't have the season we wanted to, but I had teammates pick me up.
"You can't be a vocal leader if you're not making plays on the field. Plays I could have made at the end of certain games could have helped us change the outcome, so I took it upon myself this offseason to be more of a leader."
Fowler, Lippett and Mumphery each had five catches, for 50, 74 and 55 yards, respectively, in last Friday's situational scrimmage. More importantly, the receiving corps produced explosive plays, of 20 yards or more, which were in short supply last season. True freshman A.J. Troup's 76-yard touchdown reception, from quarterback Tyler O'Connor, was 28 yards longer than MSU's longest play last season.
"Last season was difficult, but after every week you had to move on to the next team and execute," Burbridge said. "That's what we're working on this spring. Now we all have a feel for the game atmosphere and know what's expected of us. Blocking's the No. 1 thing that we're getting better at, but we're also getting more consistent at route-running and catching the ball."
Burbridge's 15-yard touchdown reception from Connor Cook, in the third quarter of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, sparked the rally that produced a 17-16 victory over TCU.
"We have a chip on our shoulder," Burbridge said. "A lot of people say Le'Veon was our whole offense, but as receivers, when it's third down and we need a big play, that's our job. So that's what we have to do this year - we have to be the playmakers for the team. There's still a lot of work to be done."
There doesn't appear to be a shortage of talent, diversity or competition for playing time.
DeAnthony Arnett had only three catches for 69 yards after transferring from Tennessee, but with the team long-gainer of 48 yards showed the big-play ability that made him a coveted prospect out of Saginaw High. Burbridge, a former prep All-American, showed flashes of brilliance last season in games and practice, as did Macgarrett Kings. And, Monty Madaris has been turning heads this spring with his physical play.
"Going into the season, especially with losing a lot of production from Le'Veon, they're going to need all of us to step up," Arnett said. "There's pretty much no way around it - we have to make plays and get touchdowns.
"We need to show that we can be an elite unit. We were a little bit inexperienced, but this year will be different. (Dropped balls) won't be an issue, for anyone. We don't want to talk about drops."
Mumphery turned in the receiving corps' most memorable play of the season when he broke seven tackles en route to a 29-yard touchdown, the first of his career, against Ohio State. He scored on 18- and 4-yard receptions in the first spring scrimmage.
"It starts with being confident in yourself," he said. "If you're not confident, then big plays aren't going to happen. Then you have to be confident in the guys next to you and your teammates, knowing that they're going to get the job done.
"I had a lot of things in mind coming into spring, but first of all, is being consistent and doing the little things well. And also, being confident in myself, being a leader, trying to motivate the guys beside me and staying positive when things aren't going well. I don't think we ever lost confidence; we just had to do a little growing up."
Citing Arnett as an example, receivers coach Terry Samuel said knowledge has been the receivers' most powerful tool this spring,
"What you're seeing right now is a kid that knows the offense and is playing fast," Samuel said. "If he doesn't want you to touch him on the line of scrimmage, you won't touch him. He's just that quick. It was just a matter of getting comfortable, and it's starting to show on the field.
"The average individual may not appreciate how they've gotten better, but they really have. You measure that in confidence. They had to get comfortable with the jargon and know that whatever subtle change we threw at them wasn't major. These guys are getting so comfortable with the offense, now they're playing fast."
It was pointed out that probably what every Spartan fan really wants to hear, however, is that the receivers are hauling in passes with much more regularity.
"We're catching the ball better," Samuel said. "We're catching the ball better."