2013 Football Outlook
Position-by-position breakdown of the Spartans entering preseason camp.
Aug. 1, 2013
The Michigan State football team officially opens preseason practice on Saturday, Aug. 3. Before the team hits the practice field, here's a position-by-position look at the 2013 Spartans.
The past six seasons, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has taken the Spartan football program to new heights.
MSU has won more Big Ten games (27) than any other conference team since 2008, including a share of the Big Ten Championship in 2010 and the Big Ten Legends Division title in 2011. The Spartans have also appeared in a school-record six consecutive bowl games and their 29 wins the last three years is the winningest stretch in school history and ties for 13th most among NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams during that same period.
Although MSU has achieved a remarkable amount of success under Dantonio, the Spartans fell victim to several close losses in 2012 during a 7-6 campaign, losing five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points, including two in the last 10 seconds of the game and one in double overtime.
But the Spartans turned a corner in the postseason, rallying for a last-minute victory over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl - their second-straight bowl win following a dramatic triple overtime win against Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl - and are looking to ride the momentum that closed 2012 into the upcoming season.
With 49 letterwinners and 15 starters returning, the pieces are in place for another Big Ten Championship run and a shot at the Rose Bowl, a destination that has eluded the Spartans for 25 years.
The Spartans welcome back seven starters and 11 players with starting experience on defense, which under the direction of assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, has developed into one of the most elite in the nation. MSU is one of just three schools, along with Alabama and Florida State, to rank among the NCAA FBS Top 10 in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense the past two seasons.
On the offensive side of the ball, Michigan State returns eight starters from last season's youthful group that featured just one starting senior. The Spartans will be relying on several players that gained valuable experience in 2012 to take the next step in 2013. The offense will have a new look as Dave Warner and Jim Bollman were appointed co-offensive coordinators prior to the start of spring practice.
"I think there's a sense of resolve on our football team right now," said Dantonio. "Our games were extremely close so it wasn't like we were out of games (last season). The games came down to the end of the last play, not just the last minute, the last play on a lot of them. So, it's just a sense to find those inches, as we've talked about many times. There's a sense of resolve of what we have to do to get better, to get over the hump, regardless of what it is. I think there's a little edge to us, which is good."
Here's a position-by-position look at the 2013 Spartans.
Dantonio believes that he has more depth at quarterback on this year's roster than he's ever had before while coaching at Michigan State.
Fifth-year senior Andrew Maxwell (6-3, 210) started all 13 games last season and faced the difficult task of replacing three-year starter Kirk Cousins, who rewrote the record book during his Spartan career.
Maxwell responded by ranking among MSU's Top 10 single-season leaders in pass attempts (second with 446), pass completions (fourth with 234), passing yards (seventh with 2,606) and total offense (eighth with 2,500 yards). The Midland, Mich., native completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions and had six 200-yard passing games in 2012. He ranked fourth in the Big Ten in passing (200.5 yards per game) and sixth in total offense (192.3 ypg.).
Although Maxwell entered 2012 as the clear-cut starter, he found himself in a competition for the starting job during spring practice. Entering preseason camp, Dantonio still views Maxwell as the team's starting quarterback.
Sophomore Connor Cook (6-4, 218), who led the Spartans on the game-winning drive in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU, has also shown glimpses of potential and will compete for playing time during preseason camp. With the Spartans trailing 13-0 in the third quarter vs. TCU, Cook displayed poise in helping lead the MSU comeback, guiding the team on a 14-play, 90-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter and then the final drive in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Promising red-shirt freshman Tyler O'Connor (6-3, 215) and true freshman Damion Terry (6-3, 222), who completed 67 percent of his passes and threw for 3,599 yards and 50 touchdowns as a senior at Erie Cathedral Prep High School, could also see time under center.
The biggest challenge on offense will be filling the production left behind by first-team All-Big Ten selection Le'Veon Bell, who accounted for 92 percent of the team's rushing yards in 2012 with a total of 1,793, the second-highest single-season mark in Michigan State history. Bell also had 12 of the team's 13 rushing touchdowns.
Although Bell received a vast majority of the carries last season, Dantonio has preferred using a two-tailback system during his tenure at Michigan State. A wide-ranging number of candidates will have the opportunity to run the ball in 2013, from returning letterwinners to incoming freshmen. The competition will be perhaps fiercest at tailback more than any other position during preseason camp.
Red-shirt freshman Riley Bullough (6-2, 230), who converted from a linebacker to a running back during the last half of spring practice, emerged as a strong contender to see carries in the backfield after strong showings in the second spring scrimmage and the Green-White spring game. In those two contests, Bullough rushed for 89 yards on 22 carries (4.1 avg.).
Nick Hill (5-8, 198, Jr.), Jeremy Langford (6-0, 206, Jr.) and Nick Tompkins (5-9, 185, R-Fr.) all received carries with the first team in the spring and will continue to compete for time during preseason camp.
The Spartans rarely play true freshmen, but the window of opportunity is open for three newcomers - Gerald Holmes (6-0, 212), RJ Shelton (5-11, 204) and Delton Williams (6-1, 220) - to make their mark in August and possibly see playing time during the season.
At fullback, sophomore Lawrence Thomas started three games and saw a majority of the snaps at the position last season, but he will be returning to the defensive line in 2013. Trevon Pendleton (5-11, 248, So.), who received an increased amount of playing time as the season progressed in 2012, will compete for playing time at fullback, along with Niko Palazeti (6-1, 252, Jr.). Ty Hamilton (6-0, 236, Jr.) and Matt Rea (6-1, 247, Jr.) will provide depth.
After having to replace nearly its entire receiving corps in 2012, Michigan State will return four of its top six reception leaders and does not lose a single letterwinner from last season.
Tony Lippett (6-3, 191, Jr.) ranked fourth on the team with 36 catches for 392 yards, while Aaron Burbridge (6-1, 195, So.), who earned Big Ten All-Freshman honors, hauled in 29 catches for 364 yards. Burbridge showed his potential at Indiana, becoming the first true freshman in MSU history to record a 100-yard receiving game (eight catches for 134 yards).
The young receivers gained valuable experience last season, but the coaching staff is expecting this core group to show significant progress this fall.
In addition, DeAnthony Arnett (5-11, 175, Jr.), Macgarrett Kings Jr. (5-10, 186, So.), Monty Madaris (6-1, 198, R-Fr.) and Andre Sims Jr. (5-9, 185, So.) will compete for playing time in the rotation. Tres Barksdale (6-2, 194, R-Fr.), John Jakubik (6-0, 188, Jr.) and Matt Macksood (5-11, 184, R-Fr.) add depth at wide receiver.
Michigan State's starting tight ends have earned All-Big Ten recognition every season since Dantonio's arrival in 2007. Last year, it was second-team All-Big Ten selection Dion Sims, who led the way with 36 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns.
With Sims' early departure to the NFL, the Spartans will have to break in several new players to the position, as the group features several underclassmen with limited starting experience.
Andrew Gleichert (6-5, 263, Jr.) is the most experienced tight end on the roster, appearing in 11 games with two starts, and heads into preseason camp listed as the starter on the depth chart.
Paul Lang (6-5, 257, So.) saw his playing time increase during the Big Ten season, starting against Ohio State and Northwestern while catching his first touchdown pass against Michigan. He will also have an opportunity at the starting position during preseason practices.
After piecing together an offensive line that suffered multiple season-ending injuries last year, the Spartans appear to be in solid shape up front heading into 2013, as MSU returns six players with starting experience.
Fifth-year senior Dan France (6-6, 312) has started the last two years at left tackle and will compete with Donavon Clark (6-3, 300, So.) for the starting position this season. France saw a majority of his reps at guard during spring practice and has the ability to go inside if necessary. When France was sidelined against Michigan and Wisconsin last year, Clark filled in admirably and continued his progress in the spring. Jack Conklin (6-6, 326, R-Fr.), who showed promise during his red-shirt season, will provide depth at left tackle.
Veteran Blake Treadwell (6-3, 304, Sr.-5) started seven games at left guard last season after missing the first five games with a knee injury, and will return to the same position this year. Treadwell also has starting experience at center. Connor Kruse (6-4, 320, Jr.), Zach Higgins (6-4, 314, R-Fr.) and Shawn Kamm (6-7, 300, Jr.) will add support behind Treadwell.
Junior Travis Jackson (6-3, 283), who is on the Rimington Trophy Watch List for the nation's top center, returned to practice in the spring and is healthy and back in action for the 2013 season. Jackson had to miss the final seven games in 2012 after he suffered a knee injury and broke his leg during Week 5 against Ohio State. Kodi Kieler (6-5, 326, R-Fr.) and Kyle Lints (6-3, 298, So.) supply depth at center.
In Jackson's absence, Jack Allen (6-1, 297, So.) moved from left guard to center, proving his versatility along the line. Allen, who garnered Freshman All-America honors, played perhaps his best game of the season in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl over TCU, helping Bell rush for 145 yards against the nation's 10th-ranked rushing defense. With Jackson back at center and Treadwell locked in at left guard, Allen looks to replace three-year starter Chris McDonald at right guard. Henry Conway (6-6, 327, Sr.-5) and Benny McGowan (6-3, 312, R-Fr.) will back up Allen.
Another injured starter from a year ago, Fou Fonoti, returns to the starting lineup at right tackle. A junior college transfer, Fonoti (6-4, 298, Sr.-5) settled in at right tackle his first season in 2011, but he broke his foot prior to the Notre Dame game in Week 3 last year and had to sit out the rest of the season. The good news for Michigan State was that he received another year of eligibility after only playing in two games. Michael Dennis (6-7, 299, Jr.) will also add depth at right tackle. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Skyler Burkland, who started 11 games at right tackle in 2012 in Fonoti's absence, announced earlier this week that multiple injuries have forced his retirement from football.
MSU returns six letterwinners and five players with starting experience on the defensive line, including junior end Marcus Rush, who has started all 27 games of his Spartan career. Named to the Nagurski Trophy Watch List for the nation's best defensive player, Rush (6-2, 245) has collected 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in his career.
There will be a new look opposite of Rush following William Gholston's early departure to the NFL, but the coaching staff is still expecting big production out of the position from Shilique Calhoun. Although he played in limited situations, Calhoun (6-4, 250, So.) still tied for the team lead in quarterback hurries last season and showed his potential with two tackles for loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Along the inside of the defensive line, the Spartans are as deep as possibly they've ever been in the Dantonio era. Tyler Hoover, who has played in 37 career games, received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and enters camp as the starter at defensive tackle. Hoover (6-7, 290) has battled injuries his entire career, including last season, but he started the last three games of the year and appeared to settle into his new position after previously playing defensive end.
Micajah Reynolds (6-5, 307, Sr.-5) and James Kittredge (6-4, 252, Jr.) split time as starters last season and will compete to start at nose tackle. Lawrence Thomas (6-3, 305, So.), who started at fullback because of a need at the position last season, is back on defense and should also contribute at defensive tackle. Brandon Clemons (6-3, 297, So.), Damon Knox (6-4, 276, So.), David Fennell (6-2, 267, R-Fr.) and Mark Scarpinato (6-3, 286, So.) will provide depth on the interior.
Michigan State will once again field one of the top linebacking corps in the nation in 2013, led by three-year starter and Butkus Award nominee Max Bullough. Bullough (6-3, 245, Sr.) has started 27 consecutive games at middle linebacker and has led the team in tackles back-to-back years with 89 and 111 stops in 2011 and 2012, respectively, all while serving as the vocal leader of the Big Ten's best defense the past two seasons. The preseason All-American has been named to watch lists for five major awards (Bednarik, Butkus, Lott IMPACT Trophy, Lombardi and Nagurski).
Denicos Allen (5-11, 218, Sr.-5) also returns for his third year as a starter at Sam (strong side) linebacker. An impact player, Allen already ranks among the school's all-time leaders with 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in his career.
At Star linebacker, converted fifth-year senior safety Jairus Jones (6-1, 213) and junior Taiwan Jones (6-3, 250) will compete in preseason camp for the starting position. Jairus Jones started the first six games at free safety, but injuries forced him on the sidelines for the second half of the season; he made the change to linebacker during spring practice and made an immediate impact in his new role. Taiwan Jones saw his playing time steadily increase as the season went along and ended up with 38 tackles, including 5.5 for losses.
The Spartans welcome back three starters from one of the country's top secondaries the past two seasons. MSU, Alabama and Georgia are the only three schools in the NCAA FBS to rank among the top 15 in pass defense in 2011 and 2012.
Dennard, who is one of just 11 defensive backs nationally to appear on the Bednarik, Nagurski and Thorpe Award Watch Lists, was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches as a junior in 2012. The Dry Branch, Ga., native has played his best against top competition, as he recorded two interceptions both against No. 18 Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl and vs. No. 21 Nebraska last season.
Opposite of Dennard at field corner will be first-year starter Trae Waynes. With two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection Johnny Adams sidelined with an injury in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Waynes (6-1, 185, So.) stepped right in and made a presence, tallying three tackles and a half sack as MSU limited TCU to just 288 yards of total offense. Ezra Robinson (6-0, 180, R-Fr.) could see time as well, while Gabe Augustin (5-8, 176, R-Fr.) will provide depth.
Lewis, who is entering his third season as a starter, ranked second on the team as a junior with a career-high 80 tackles to go along with eight passes defended (six pass break-ups and two interceptions). He was named to the Thorpe Award Watch List, given to the nation's top defensive back, for the second-straight year.
Sophomore RJ Williamson (6-0, 212, So.), who earned his first letter last season and earned Big Ten All-Freshman honors, gives Michigan State an experienced back-up at strong safety behind Lewis.
At free safety, Kurtis Drummond (6-1, 200, Jr.) took over the starting duties midway through the season and continued to improve throughout the year. Drummond proved to be a playmaker as he recorded four pass break-ups, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery to go along with his career-high 53 tackles.
Demetrious Cox (6-1, 199, R-Fr.) drew the attention from the coaching staff on the scout team as a freshman and will compete for playing time, along with returning letterwinner Mylan Hicks (5-11, 196, Jr.).
Michigan State has consistently shown quality play from special teams in the Dantonio era, as the Spartans have earned All-Big Ten recognition either at placekicker or punter seven times since 2007. In addition, MSU has also produced Big Ten leaders in kickoff and punt returns.
Mike Sadler, who led the Big Ten and ranked 21st in the NCAA FBS in punting last season with his 43.3-yard average, is back for his third season as the starting punter. Sadler (6-0, 192, Jr.) earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in 2012 and was named to the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which is presented annually to the nation's top punter.
Perhaps more important than his average, Sadler has proven to be a dangerous field-position weapon, ranking among the nation's leaders the past two seasons for most punts placed inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Sadler ranked second in the conference with 31 punts downed inside the 20 last season and has placed nearly 40 percent (31-of-79) of his career punts inside the 20, including 22 percent inside the 10-yard line.
The spring saw tough competition to replace three-year starting placekicker Dan Conroy, and the battle is expected to continue throughout preseason camp. Red-shirt freshman Kevin Cronin (6-1, 209, R-Fr.) emerged as the favorite to win the job with an impressive spring, but veteran Kevin Muma (6-0, 206, Sr.-5) and incoming freshman Michael Geiger (5-8, 186) will still have an opportunity at the position. Geiger was ranked the top high school kicker in the nation by several scouting services.
Muma also has been the starting kickoff specialist the past three years, but enters the season in a dead-heat with Cronin for those duties as well. Taybor Pepper (6-4, 200, So.) will serve as the starting long snapper for the second consecutive season.
Nick Hill has been the team's primary kick returner the last two seasons and already ranks third in MSU history in kick return yards with 1,669. Andre Sims Jr. led the team in punt return yards in 2012 to earn Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors by BTN.com and is one of the top candidates to fill the role this season.