April 10, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The "next level" has been clearly targeted by Michigan State's offensive line.
Despite having to replace three starters - right tackle Fou Fonoti and guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France - the Spartans believe averaging 200 rushing yards per game is not only attainable, but necessary.
Had MSU hit that mark last season, it would have been fifth in the Big Ten instead of eighth with 173.8. If it gets there in 2014, it will send a message that resonates throughout the offense, the team and the conference.
"I think that shows your brutality, it shows your toughness," offensive line coach Mark Staten said after Michigan State's seventh spring practice earlier this week.
Renowned for its interchangeable parts, thanks to an eight-man rotation, and athleticism, the Spartans ran and passed from behind what is considered the best and deepest line since Mark Dantonio took over as head coach in 2007.
Those traits still exist while the line continues to work on an approach that was trending upward once MSU overcame a slow start on offense through four non-conference games.
The line paved the way for tailback Jeremy Langford's 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns on 292 carries and allowed just 17 sacks, which was tied for third fewest in the Big Ten, in 14 games.
The work of the line is better illustrated by how the offense performed in conference play. After the quarterback and tailback positions were secured by Connor Cook and Langford, respectively, the Spartans averaged 185.8 rushing yards in the league, which was good for fifth, were second in sacks allowed with nine and second in third-down conversion (48.8 percent).
"Since a year ago, they just put their foot down and said, `Hey, we're going to do this,' and we'll continue to take that attitude," Staten said of his linemen.
The 200-yard-per-game plateau has eluded the Spartans since 2005, when their pass-first spread attack produced 201.8 yards on the ground and 295.5 through the air.
The experience that returned from last season made an immediate impression in last Friday's scrimmage.
Center Jack Allen is preparing for his third season as a starter, and Jack Conklin secured the left tackle spot last season as a red-shirt freshman. However, left guard Travis Jackson has 18 career starts in 28 appearances at center and right guard, former walk-on Connor Kruse began spring as the starting right guard and has played in 28 games and Donavon Clark is putting his experience from 20 appearances, including six starts, to use at right tackle.
"Though three starters have left us, we still have two guys with over 400 snaps that will fill right in and one guy with 200 snaps that played every position but left tackle for us last year," Staten said. "The one with 200, Connor Kruse, had a workmanlike scrimmage and just kept going, and going and going and graded out the highest of all the linemen.
"We're hitting the ground running. Those starting five have all seen it before and (in the scrimmage) it was ones on ones and twos on twos. We averaged higher than we did in the season rushing the ball. It's a step. We want to be better."
"He's just so athletic," Staten said of Kieler. "Sometimes, in being athletic, you can make a mistake in your technique and then recover from it. Though he may make a mistake, he's able to make up for it. He's in there studying all the time. The other one who's really working hard and we've been getting him going at right and left guard is Benny McGowan. He's done a lot of nice things. It's still up to Benny. He's getting there. He's got to keep pushing to that ceiling, but he's still on the second floor.
"I think there's a lot more brutal force with this offensive line. There are guys that want to get after you. They're going to physically try to wear you down."
Allen is not at all pleased with how 182 or fewer rushing yards - including just 65 in the 24-20 victory against Stanford in the Rose Bowl - in 11 of 14 games reflects on the line.
"We can do better and we can find the extra yard here and there," he said. "The experience we have coming back is nice because everybody can play almost every position. The guards can play either guard and Connor Kruse can play right tackle through left tackle, so if someone goes down, we can slide someone right in."
As a group, MSU's linemen couldn't be a more congenial and happy-go-lucky. Things change once they take the field, according to Allen.
"We've got some big guys up front, who like pushing people around," he said. "I think everyone's starting to get nasty to where everyone's playing with a chip on their shoulder and a we-don't-like-you attitude.
"Last year doesn't mean anything. You've got to do it two years in a row. From watching the film from last year, we can get more. You see where we could have had 4 or 5 more yards or even break it for a touchdown if you would have just pushed yourself for an extra two or three seconds."
A year ago at this time, Conklin was just trying to keep his head above water with everything he was trying to learn. This year, Staten said he's picking up nuances, such as whether a linebacker will blitz based on the depth of the safety.
"I never stepped foot on the field going into last year," Conklin said. "Coming back after playing all 14 games, and winning the Rose Bowl, the thing I look forward to now is perfecting my craft and going from being just a starting offensive lineman on Michigan State's team to being All-Big Ten or higher.
"We're not satisfied with what we did last year. We want to be better. We want to be on top of the Big Ten in scoring, running and passing the ball. The biggest thing for us now is to make the four-team playoffs and play in Dallas for the National Championship."
The development of the depth along the offensive line has been a major development in the overall health of the program.
"You look at the 2012 season," Conklin said. "We had Fou and Travis go down and then we had hard time filling guys in. Last year, luckily we didn't have any injuries, but we had other guys there so even when somebody got tired another guy filled right in. Younger guys were able to get on the field for 50-100 plays during the season and now they can step right in. I don't know the last time the offense won the first scrimmage in spring ball, so that shows we're clicking right off the bat."
The only time the offense was ahead of the defense at this point under Dantonio was in 2008, so it's no wonder Cook is putting his full faith and confidence in the line.
"In the first scrimmage we had last year, we got our butts kicked by the defense," Cook said. "I think we're a lot farther along than we were last year as an offense this spring, and I feel we'll just keep getting better week by week.
"It all starts with our offensive line. However tough, mean and nasty they want to play sets the tone for our offense and that opens holes for J-Lang and gives me time to throw. You just see how sound they are. Marcus Rush is an exceptional pass-rusher and Shilique (Calhoun) is a great pass-rusher and every time they go up against Jack Conklin, it's like they're going up against the Great Wall of China."
The Spartans were known primarily for their defense last season, but the offense will have something to say about that next season.
"In the scrimmage, you saw our offensive line getting really physical and more aggressive," Cook said. "Our whole offense has an identity now and that's what we didn't have last year."