2012 Outlook: Offense
Spartans return five starters and 20 letterwinners.
July 30, 2012
Under sixth-year head coach Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has firmly established itself as one of the premier programs in the Big Ten Conference.
The Spartans have won more Big Ten games (24) over the last four years than any other conference team, including a 14-2 mark the past two seasons that included the 2010 Big Ten Championship and the 2011 Big Ten Legends Division title. In addition, Michigan State has won 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. The 22 wins since the beginning of the 2010 season are the highest two-year total in program history and ties for seventh most among NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision Teams during that same period.
But Dantonio has sent a clear message to his team since a thrilling triple-overtime victory over Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl brought last season to a close.
"We can't be complacent," said Dantonio. "We can't stand on what we've done before.
"Really what we've got to do is try to build on what we've accomplished thus far, and I don't think that ever stops. I think you have a vision for where you want to go, a vision for the future, and you're trying to get there. Really, you continue to build. That's what we'll always do here."
With 47 letterwinners and 16 starters returning, including 10 who earned All-Big Ten recognition, Michigan State is primed for another run at winning the Big Ten Championship as it looks to go to its first Rose Bowl since defeating USC in 1988. The defense, which ranked among the NCAA FBS Top 10 in four categories last season, including No. 6 in total defense, reloads with eight starters from a year ago, while the offense welcomes back an experienced offensive line with several budding playmakers.
As MSU gears up for preseason camp, which begins on Saturday, Aug. 4, Dantonio and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar take a position-by-position look at the 2012 Spartan offense.
For the first time since 2009, Michigan State will have a new quarterback directing the offense. Gone is three-year starter Kirk Cousins, who compiled a 22-5 record his final two seasons and set nearly every career Michigan State passing record en route to becoming the winningest quarterback in school history.
After spending three seasons as Cousins' understudy, Andrew Maxwell (6-3, 212, Jr.) is ready to take over the reins of the offense while taking on more of a leadership role. Although he lacks starting experience, Maxwell has been in the system for three years and has shown glimpses of his potential throughout the younger portion of his career. In just four games last season, Maxwell completed 69 percent of his passes (18-of-26), including an 8-for-9 effort against Central Michigan with a touchdown. Now, it's his turn, and the coaches think he's ready for the challenge.
"I think Andrew is very much like Kirk in a lot of ways: their personalities, very faith driven, intelligent players, hard workers, very good teammates, and good leaders as well," Dantonio said. "With that being said, you have to be your own person too. You can't try to simulate somebody. But we're very fortunate to have him be as patient, really, as he's been throughout this process.
"He came here as a highly recruited young man, and from day one when he came in here he impressed. So it wasn't the type of thing where we had to sort of sit there and say well, hopefully he gets good enough. He's come here with an idea that he can be the guy, and this is his time. It's going to be very exciting to watch him." Not only does Maxwell have the physical attributes necessary to become a successful quarterback, but he's also starting to emerge as the vocal leader the offense needs following the departure of Cousins, who was only the second three-time captain in MSU history.
"Andrew's an extremely hard worker with great attention to detail," remarked Dantonio. "He has a great feel in the huddle in terms of being able to lead people. He does a lot of things at the line of scrimmage and has a great understanding of things conceptually.
"Physically, tangibly, he's got good size and strength. He was a 6-7 high jumper in high school, so he has some explosiveness to him. He's got a great arm. What he needs is game experience, I feel."
That's the biggest question surrounding Maxwell entering the season, one that can only be answered with time.
"He has to get that down in, down out type of situation where he has to make plays in critical situations," said Dantonio. "I think that's what he's missing right now. But he's going to get that."
Maxwell suffered a slight setback midway through spring practice with a sprained knee and had to sit out the final six practices, including the Green-White spring game, but it's not something offensive coordinator Dan Roushar feels will hamper him going into preseason camp.
"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."
The biggest beneficiary to Maxwell's minor injury was Connor Cook (6-4, 222, R-Fr.), who was suddenly thrust into the starting quarterback role the remainder of spring practice. Cook handled the difficult task admirably, especially considering it was his first spring practice and he was going against arguably one of the nation's top defenses. His accelerated spring education concluded with a strong showing at the Green-White game, where he completed 20-of-45 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown while playing for both teams.
"The upside is, he's going to get better," Roushar said of Cook. "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 came 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."
In an era of unprecedented passing numbers, Michigan State's offensive game plan remains one of balance with a strong commitment to the running game.
Junior Le'Veon Bell (6-2, 244) leads a talented backfield that also includes senior Larry Caper (5-11, 222) and sophomore Nick Hill (5-8, 190). The team's leading rusher in 2011 with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns, Bell is expected to be the featured back this season after splitting carries with Edwin Baker last year.
In just two seasons, Bell has collected 1,553 yards on the ground (5.4 avg.) and is tied for 13th in MSU history with 21 rushing touchdowns. The bruising, physical back, who was also third on the team last year with 35 receptions for 267 yards, has been named to preseason watch lists for the Maxwell Award and the Doak Walker Award.
"We look forward to Le'Veon building upon the momentum he gained during the second half of last season," Roushar said. "Down the stretch, he displayed the ability to make big plays, both in the running and passing games. With continued improvement, Le'Veon can become a more consistent playmaker.
"We also believe Le'Veon has the talent to become a dominant ball carrier because he does have the ability to gain yards after contact. What we'd like to see is for Le'Veon to get stronger as the game and season progresses. If he does, that will make our running game even better."
Following a strong spring practice, Caper will have plenty of opportunities to carry the ball in 2012. Caper burst onto the scene his freshman season in 2009 by leading the team in rushing, but a hand injury slowed him in 2010 as Baker and Bell did most of the heavy lifting out of the tailback position. Over the past two seasons, Caper has also proven to be a receiving threat, with 22 catches and two touchdown receptions.
"I think Larry's run the ball harder, he's been more decisive, at times he's gotten his pads going forward, and he's been more sound in protection," Roushar said of Caper's play in spring practice. "He's catching the football, so I see good things. We're counting on him."
As a red-shirt freshman, Hill saw the field as a kick returner last season, and responded by compiling the second-most kick return yards in school history with 999. This fall, he will compete for carries out of the backfield in addition to his duties on special teams. Playing for both teams in the Green-White spring game, Hill combined to rush for 95 yards on 19 carries, including a 32-yard touchdown for the White in the fourth quarter.
"Nick Hill is a phenomenal running back as well," said Dantonio. "He gives you that little bit of that Edwin Baker type of thing, where he's in and out of cuts and hides behind people, and he's extremely explosive."
The trio of Bell, Caper and Hill should benefit from an experienced offensive line that features seven players with starting experience.
"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."
Jeremy Langford (6-0, 205, So.), who moved to wide receiver during the middle of spring practice, also has experience at running back and provides depth at the position.
At fullback, sophomore Niko Palazeti (6-1, 250) is the leading candidate for the starting position left vacated by the graduation of Todd Anderson. In addition to Palazeti, converted defensive end Taylor Calero (6-3, 248, So.) and walk-on Trevon Pendleton (5-11, 248, R-Fr.) add depth behind Palazeti.
Cunningham had a historic senior season, tying a school record with 79 receptions while leaving East Lansing as the program's all-time record holder in receptions (218) and receiving yards (3,086). In addition, Martin's 66 catches tied for sixth in an MSU single-season; combined, Cunningham and Martin produced the most prolific season by a wide receiving duo in Michigan State history with 145 catches and 2,083 yards.
All told, the Spartans only return 23 percent of the team's receptions and 16 percent of the team's receiving yards from last season.
That being said, the cupboard certainly isn't bare in terms of talent. There are plenty of options for quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who has worked with a majority of the rising newcomers both in the spring and during his time with the No. 2 offense last season.
"Wide receiver is a position where we've lost a lot of players," said Dantonio. "The yards and catches really have been sort of depleted in that area. So that's a position where we've addressed those needs in recruiting, and we're addressing those needs with position moves or different situations we're trying to deal with.
"It's going to be important (for the receivers) to work extremely hard. But I think they're very, very capable of giving us explosiveness out there in big plays."
Unfortunately, two of the most experienced receivers saw limited time during spring practice, as Bennie Fowler (6-1, 218, Jr.) continued to heal from a foot injury and Tony Lippett (6-3, 190, So.) sprained an ankle and missed the second half of spring drills.
Fowler has been battling lingering foot problems his entire career, but has been productive when he's made it to the field. As a red-shirt freshman in 2010, Fowler emerged as a multi-dimensional threat with 573 all-purpose yards, including 175 receiving yards on 14 catches. But he was limited to just five games of action last season and primarily played special teams.
Due to a lack of depth at cornerback last season, Lippett played both sides of the ball, eventually being used a majority of the time on defense. He appeared in all 14 games, including five starts at cornerback, and tied for second on the team with five pass break-ups. Lippett moved back over to the offense exclusively at the onset of spring practice and is expected to be a playmaker for the Spartans this fall.
One thing is for certain - preseason camp will be a critical time for Maxwell and the receivers to develop a further sense of chemistry before the season begins, especially with Fowler and Lippett.
"I think we've got some very talented guys, but they didn't get to make the progress (in spring practice)," Roushar said. "I think they can get it done, and hopefully they'll be much more ready when they report for camp. 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."
The Spartans received good news following the conclusion of spring practice as DeAnthony Arnett (5-11, 170, So.), a transfer from Tennessee, was ruled eligible to play in 2012 after the NCAA granted his request for a residence waiver. Arnett transferred to Michigan State at the beginning of the spring semester in January so he could be closer to his hometown of Saginaw, Mich., and his father William, who is battling heart and kidney problems.
Arnett is expected to contribute immediately after an impressive freshman campaign in 2011 for the Volunteers. He was third on the team in catches (24) and fifth in receiving yards (242) to go along with two touchdowns; his 24 receptions tied for second most by a true freshman in Tennessee history.
Two more young receivers that will see playing time include sophomore Keith Mumphery (6-0, 208) and red-shirt freshman Andre Sims Jr. (5-9, 182). Mumphery was named the Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year in 2010 and earned his first letter last season playing in all 14 games, primarily on special teams. Sims redshirted in 2011 but served notice in the spring after recording five receptions for 58 yards in three spring scrimmages, including a team-best three catches for 22 yards and a touchdown for the White in the spring game.
"Keith is a guy that's ready to explode onto the scene," said Dantonio. "And A.J. (Andre) is a very exciting player who can get north and south quick."
A transition for Langford from running back to wide receiver appeared to be the right move in the middle of spring practice, as he quickly picked up on the position and made an impact with five catches in the first two scrimmages, giving the Spartans yet another target.
"I really feel like he's too good of an athlete to play one position and be the fourth tailback," Dantonio said on Langford. "We've got to get him on the field, just like we did last year with special teams. He's a guy who catches the ball well down the field and does some things naturally like Keshawn (Martin) did."
Juwan Caesar (6-4, 212, R-Fr.), John Jakubik (6-0, 188, So.) and AJ Troup (6-2, 205, R-Fr.,) add depth at wide receiver, in addition to Kyle Kerrick (6-3, 194), an incoming freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring practice. True freshmen Aaron Burbridge (6-1, 190), Macgarrett Kings Jr. (5-10, 183) and Monty Madaris (6-1, 190) also enter preseason camp with a chance to see action.
The Spartans have possessed one of the deepest, most experienced tight end groups in the nation the past few seasons, regularly featuring multiple players owning starts to their credit. This season, however, junior Dion Sims (6-5, 285) is the only returning letterwinner at the position with starting experience under his belt, and he will be counted on to lead the relatively young tight end corps.
Sims appears on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award, which is presented to the nation's top tight end, marking the fourth straight year the Spartans have had a player up for the prestigious award. Although he played the second half of 2011 with a broken hand, Sims still managed to play in all 14 games and rank tied for third on the team with three touchdown receptions; all of his 12 catches arrived in the first seven games. A threat in the red zone, Sims already has six career touchdown receptions in his two seasons.
With his experience, Sims could have a more expanded role in the passing game, said Roushar, while the young receivers continue their maturation process. Joining Sims on the depth chart at tight end to make up for the losses of Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek is converted defensive end Denzel Drone (6-2, 260, Jr.), who made the transition to the offensive side of the ball during spring practice.
"Denzel can move back into the defense and not miss a beat really," said Dantonio. "He was a good tight end in high school. We have a need at that position, so he can walk over there and be in an immediate situation where he can play either an F, or a move tight end, or a stationary tight end."
Third-year walk-on Andrew Gleichert (6-5, 250, So.) took reps with the No. 1 and No. 2 offense in the spring and could see action in a two-tight end formation. Two-year letterwinner Derek Hoebing (6-7, 270, Jr.) and Paul Lang (6-5, 255, R-Fr.) also provide depth at the position.
After years of having to replace multiple starters on the offensive line, this season Michigan State returns seven offensive linemen with starting experience, giving it the potential to be the strongest front five in the Dantonio era. The depth has afforded Roushar and offensive line coach Mark Staten to juggle personnel groupings to see which unit gels the most before the start of the season.
"We've have more experience than we've ever had before on the offensive line," said Dantonio. "Everything that we've been able to do I think points toward that we have a foundation right now moving forward.
"It's just a matter of getting everybody the number of reps, but that's a good thing. We've got numbers, so when you have that, it gives you great luxury." The veteran of the group is fifth-year senior Chris McDonald (6-5, 298), who returns for his third season as the starting right guard. McDonald has 26 starting assignments to his credit, including 17 consecutive games, and was named to the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's top interior lineman.
Also returning to the right side is tackle Fou Fonoti (6-4, 296, Sr.), a junior college transfer who stepped right in last season and started the final 11 games. Meanwhile, junior Henry Conway (6-6, 330) is healthy after battling neck injuries throughout his career and will support Fonoti at right tackle, along with Shawn Kamm (6-7, 305, So.).
The injuries that shuffled the lineup around so often last season - MSU used four different starting combinations, including three centers - should actually come back to benefit the Spartans in 2012.
At center, Blake Treadwell (6-3, 300, Jr.) started the first three games last year, but was injured at Notre Dame, clearing the way for Travis Jackson. Jackson (6-3, 280, So.) went on to earn Freshman All-America honors and developed into one of the top young centers in the nation, and returns to hold down the starting spot heading into preseason camp.
Treadwell has now moved over to left guard, where he looks to fill the gap of the one starter lost in Joel Foreman, who tied a school record for the most starts of any player at any position with 49.
The wild card on the offensive line could be red-shirt freshman Jack Allen (6-1, 295). Dantonio said that Allen was talented enough to play last season, but the program was fortunate enough to be able to redshirt him. This year, Allen may find his way on the field, and will initially provide back-up at left guard and possibly center. Donovan Clark (6-3, 202, R-Fr.) also adds depth at left guard.
There are two legitimate starting candidates at left tackle in junior Dan France (6-6, 315) and sophomore Skyler Burkland (6-7, 315). A converted defensive lineman, France started all but one game at left tackle last season in his first year on the offensive line. Burkland, a promising talent who started the first three games of 2011 at right tackle before suffering a season-ending knee injury at Notre Dame, returned to action in spring practice and will push France for the starting position.
France also took some reps at left guard with Burkland at left tackle during the spring, leaving the Spartans with perhaps another combination up front. "Skyler's a tremendous football player," remarked Dantonio. "He's big, extremely physical, tough, and very athletic...He's going to end up playing some place. These guys will be challenged to play. Maybe we'll just put all seven of them in there at once and play like that."
Third-year player Michael Dennis (6-7, 309, So.) supplies depth at left tackle. "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."