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Spartan Football: Spring Assessment

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi welcomes back eight starters from a unit that led the Big Ten in total defense, rushing defense and sacks last season. (Photo by Dale G. Young, The Detroit News)

April 26, 2012

By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist

EAST LANSING, Mich. - One Michigan State coordinator is coming out of spring drills brimming with cautious optimism.

The other bristles with caustic objectivity

Dan Roushar and Pat Narduzzi's approaches are as different as..., well..., offense and defense but their goals are the same: Get the Spartans to a second-consecutive Big Ten Championship Game and win the conference title for the second time in three seasons.

Each has confronted significant personnel challenges along the way to Saturday's Green-White Game in Spartan Stadium. Some have been met while others will be settled in preseason camp during the run-up to the Aug. 31 opener against Boise State.

"I think everybody improved, so that's a compliment to each of our guys," said Roushar, who has to replace seven of his most productive players, including the nation's best overall team leader, from last season's offense.

Although Narduzzi is trying to compensate for the loss of the first Spartan likely to be selected in the NFL Draft and a so-called glue guy who is expected to be taken a few rounds later, he returns eight starters from last season's Big Ten-leading defense.

Exceptional talent, battle-tested experience and future pros appear throughout the defensive depth chart, but Narduzzi has expanded upon head coach Mark Dantonio's warning about becoming complacent.

Everybody on the outside may be looking at the MSU defense as having a chance to be something special, "but everybody knows nothing is what I would say," Narduzzi said. "I say this every year; you're only as good as you play. Every team jells a different way."

What stands out on offense is how the line has continued to build on the success it generated last season after getting off to a problematic start due to a series of injuries. The depth and experience that came out of those trials has made filling the void left by the graduation of Joel Foreman much easier.



Right guard Chris McDonald and center Travis Jackson are rock-solid anchors and Fou Fonoti is set at right tackle. Where at one point early last season MSU had no bona fide left tackle, it now has two thanks to Dan France, who played the final 13 games there, and to the return of Skyler Burkland, who started the first three games at right tackle.

Offensive line coach Mark Staten even has the luxury of moving France inside to Foreman's left-guard position next to Burkland.

"I see a lot more consistency in execution, not only of assignment but the fundamentals we're working so hard on," Roushar said. "They've been outstanding in their efforts to be a complete unit both as run-blockers and in protecting the passer."

One of the objectives of spring was to improve on a running attack that was 11th in the league.

"It's been pretty close to the way we've wanted to do it," Roushar said. "I think back to the scrimmages and our efforts on inside-run, and those areas we really focused on, and I think we've gotten positive results and are seeing some good things happen.

"We didn't dummy it down (last season) because we did an awful lot, so I don't think we can do more. What I do think is, we can do it better. We're seeing guys with better footwork, striking their targets and being in better fundamental positions to sustain and finish blocks."

Consequently, leading returning rushers Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper, along with Nick Hill, the newcomer to the running back rotation, are becoming more integrated with the blocking schemes.

"They're gaining confidence in what they see and are able to stay within the structure of what we're doing schematically, and not all of the sudden ad-libbing and being somewhere we didn't want them to be," Roushar said. "You see guys playing faster, they're stronger, the usage of their hands is better and they're much closer to what we want them to be and need them to be for us to be successful."

It would be a mistake to conclude that MSU will rely heavier on the rush offense, at least early on, as Andrew Maxwell gets settled in at quarterback where Kirk Cousins excelled as a three-time captain.

"We're going to have to be balanced," Roushar said. "There's not a football team on our schedule that if we're purely one-dimensional, wouldn't make things difficult for us. For us to make it very difficult for defenses to defend us, we'll need great production in the passing game as well as running the ball."

And the air attack is the area of the offense that still warrants a grade of incomplete.

Maxwell, a junior with nine career back-up appearances, was about as ready as he could be to take over before spraining his knee with six practices to go. So from that standpoint, it was only a minor setback.

"Up until the injury, I thought Andrew was having a very good spring," Roushar said. "I thought his decision-making process was on par to what we expected and thought his accuracy was very good. Missing a few practices probably doesn't hurt him as much as it hurts us because you lose the leadership aspect that he brings.

"You're looking for who is going to step up and not only be a vocal leader, but a leader by example. That's something that has stood out to us."

However, a benefit that has arisen from Maxwell's absence is the accelerated development of inexperienced freshman back-up Connor Cook, who has gotten most of the snaps with the No. 1 offense as a result.

"The upside is, he's going to get better," Roushar said. "The downside is, he's not where we want him to be yet. The biggest thing is that by him getting all this work, he's going to come out of the spring with a clear understanding of what his strengths and weaknesses are, and he'll be able to continue to improve on his strengths but really address the areas he needs to address to, as talented as he is, reach his potential."

The passing game has also struggled for consistency, timing and chemistry because while the receiving corps is being completely revamped, Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler, who have at least some experience, have been injured for all or the majority of spring drills.

It will be imperative for the receivers to finish work on concepts they were just beginning to grasp - running in and out of breaks at full speed, for example - during unsupervised seven-on-seven workouts this summer.

Fortunately, Dion Sims returns to pick up much of the slack at the tight-end spot. While his role as a blocker will expand significantly, Roushar said, he could be featured more in the passing game to take some of the pressure off the wideouts until they're up to speed.

"I think we've got some very talented guys, but they didn't get to make the progress," Roushar said. "I think they can get it done, and hopefully they'll be much more ready when they report for camp. But the coaching points on the little things to refine their skills will be lost. They don't even have (an experienced returning receiver to rely on for direction and advice).

"They do have the resources to study that, but it's one thing to see it and another to actually do it. That's probably the biggest negative of what happened this spring and could slow our progress, but I don't see it to be such a concern that these guys won't come back and play at a high level."

One of the offense's most pleasant surprises has been the rapid development of Jeremy Langford, a speedster who switched from running back to wideout midway through spring. Langford does things reminiscent of what Keshawn Martin did last season.

"He has caught all of our eyes," Roushar said. "It's amazing how he's starting to show signs of those qualities you're looking for in a wide receiver. We know that he has some skills from a running standpoint so that when we get the ball in his hands, he can make things happen. A.J. Sims has just continued to compete, and play hard and be sound assignment-wise, and he's caught the ball very consistently."

With defensive end William Gholston, middle linebacker Max Bullough and bookend cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard returning to a unit that also boasts accomplished playmakers like strong safety Isaiah Lewis and end Marcus Rush, the MSU defense has an unmistakable "Wow factor".

Nevertheless, Narduzzi remains interested only in results that wow him on Saturdays.

"Spring ball is different than fall ball," he said. "If some guys get tight rear ends and don't make plays, we won't be very good. I don't care how much potential we have. Potential is a bad P-word. We never try to count on potential.

"Our guys have got to come out and play, and they've got to make plays."

Two of the best at doing that, tackle Jerel Worthy and free safety Trenton Robinson, are gone, but Narduzzi isn't oblivious to the fact that there is no shortage of others who have come through for the Spartans in the past.

"Obviously, you feel good with your corners in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard," Narduzzi said. "I feel pretty good that those guys can lock people down, but they still have to make a play on the ball. If there's one place you feel real good, it's at that corner spot.

"We feel good with Isaiah at that safety spot, but we still don't have a true answer for Trenton Robinson."

The battle between Kurtis Drummond and RJ Williamson at free safety has the appearances of going right down to the wire.

"I wish I could say that after 15 days that, `This is the guy, he's got it,' but it's not that way," Narduzzi said. "I told those guys the other day, neither one of you guys act like you want it yet.

"It's not like we don't have adequate guys there, but we wanted someone to make it flat-out easy. I don't want to make the decision and I don't want (defensive backfield) Coach (Harlon) Barnett to make it. I want the kids to make the decision. I want the rest of the team to look back and say, `Oh, that's our guy,' and not look back and say, `I'm not sure which one it is yet.'

"Maybe one of them will jump out Saturday (in the spring game) and say, `I am the guy.'"

Narduzzi said he sleeps "OK" knowing that Bullough, Denicos Allen and Chris Norman, who missed spring with a shoulder injury, return intact at the three linebacker positions.

"Max can take the step to the next level," Narduzzi said. "Intelligence-wise, I don't know if he can get any better. It's just a matter of being more physical. He can be just a physical beast in there, but a lot of times he stops his feet on contact and tries to make every tackle instead of just doing his job and being a physical force.

"At 6-2, 250 pounds and running like he does, he's got the ability to just blow people up and he doesn't quite do that at times. He lets people off the hook too easily. The next step is for him to just become a physical force."

If he does that, MSU could have another Percy Snow on its hands. There's a stable of up-and-comers behind Bullough, Allen and Norman, as well.

"Darien Harris has really made major strides to the point where you go, `Wow, that guy can go in and be better than we had at backup last year,' " Narduzzi said of the red-shirt freshman strongside backer. "I feel comfortable with where he is mentally on knowing what to do and once we get into the game plan, I think he'll be just as good.

"(Steve) Gardiner and (TyQuan) Hammock, the backups at MIKE, have both had great springs, and at the other spot, Kyler Elsworth has had a really good spring."

Harris as been the defense's spring surprise, so far.

"Taiwan Jones had him beat out last fall, and all the sudden, Darien Harris has him beat out this spring," Narduzzi said. "And you know what? It doesn't matter where you are in the spring, either. Darien hasn't played much, but he's really showed he's the guy, at least in a back-up role.

"Taiwan has showed he can do it in the game but didn't show it in the spring, for whatever reason. But I guarantee he'll have a great fall and will challenge for a position. He's tough and he's physical, but he's not always where he needs to be (on the field) yet. He will knock the heck out of you, but we need to get him to do the right things all the time."

Filling the spot vacated by Worthy, who could be a No. 1 NFL Draft pick, isn't as troublesome for Narduzzi as the free safety position because fifth-year senior Tyler Hoover is looking to complete his injury-plagued career with a breakout season and sophomore James Kittredge has performed well.

"Are they Jerel Worthy?" Narduzzi asked. "No. Could they be? Possibly. They do have a chance to be solid in there and we can build around those to guys inside."

They will be teamed with senior nose tackle Anthony Rashad White, who blocked the field-goal attempt to preserve the triple-overtime victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

The Spartan pass rush, which produced a league-high 45 sacks last season - Allen led the way with 11 and Gholston had five - could be even more daunting with the introduction of Joel Heath and Shilique Calhoun at end.

Narduzzi said he hopes Michigan State hasn't topped out in that department, "because we missed about 10 other ones."

Because of the wealth at linebacker, Narduzzi can try some interesting combinations, including a 3-4 formation.

"Without a doubt, when you look at Marcus Rush and Gholston, and Shilique Calhoun and Joel Heath, and even Jeremy Gainer has had a good spring, we've got some quality ends," Narduzzi said. "There's no question that with those guys, we can and will be better than we were a year ago.

"But again, physically they'll be better and mentally they'll be better, but do they make the play? Do we make the sacks we had last year? Do we match that or do we surpass that?"

Although Narduzzi is renowned for his creativity, he doesn't see the Spartans adding a lot of wrinkles until they've mastered the basics.

"We're trying to put the pieces together and get back to where we were last fall," he said. "And maybe in fall camp, once we've decided maybe we've got just as much as we did last year, we can start adding some new pieces.

"We'd like to be able to do that, but it's got to be quality first, then quantity. We don't care if (the opponent) knows what defense we're in. We're going to play our defense better than they can play against us."

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