2016 Season Outlook
Position-by-position breakdown of the Spartans entering preseason camp.
SPARTAN FOOTBALL NOTES
• Michigan State, which finished the 2015 season with the second-most wins in school history (12-2 record), won the Big Ten Championship for the second time in three years and reached the College Football Playoff, enters its 10th season under head coach Mark Dantonio in 2016.
• The Spartans finished ranked among the nation’s Top 10 for the third year in a row in 2015 (No. 3 in both polls in 2013; No. 5 in both polls in 2014; No. 6 in both polls in 2015) – a program first since 1955-57 (No. 2 in 1955; No. 9 in 1956; No. 3 in 1957). The Spartans finished in the AP Top 10 a school-record four consecutive years from 1950-53 (No. 8 in 1950; No. 2 in 1951; No. 1 in 1952; No. 3 in 1953). It marked MSU’s 15th Top 10 finish in the history of the AP Poll. Michigan State has been ranked in the AP Poll for a school-record 41 consecutive weeks, including 32 weeks in the Top 10. It also marked MSU’s sixth Top 10 finish in the history of the USA TODAY Coaches Poll (began administering the poll in 1991), including its fourth under Dantonio (No. 10 in 2011; No. 3 in 2013; No. 5 in 2014; No. 6 in 2015). • MSU (No. 3 in 2013, No. 5 in 2014, No. 6 in 2015) and Alabama (No. 7 in 2013, No. 4 in 2014, No. 1 in 2015) are the only schools to finish in the Top 10 of the last three final AP Polls.
• Michigan State, which has posted a 36-5 record since 2013, is one of only four schools in the nation to play in a Bowl Championship Series Game (2014 Rose Bowl), a New Year’s Six game (2015 Cotton Bowl) and the College Football Playoff (2015 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl) in the last three seasons (Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State). MSU’s 36 wins since 2013 are fourth most in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision.
• Michigan State returns a total of 48 letterwinners and 12 starters in 2016. A total of 28 players returning have starting experience (12 offense, 13 defense, three special teams). On defense, the Spartans return 22 letterwinners and six starters from a unit that finished No. 11 in the FBS in rushing defense, No. 25 in scoring defense and No. 26 in total defense. Offensively, the Spartans must replace eight starters, including three-year starting quarterback and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner Connor Cook, Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Aaron Burbridge and a pair of All-Americans on the offensive line (C Jack Allen, OT Jack Conklin).
• Michigan State closed out the 2015 season with a 12-2 record. The 12 wins were second most in school history (13 in 2013). Michigan State has posted at least 11 wins five times in the last six seasons (11 in 2010, 11 in 2011, 13 in 2013, 11 in 2014, 12 in 2015). MSU head coach Mark Dantonio is the first coach in Big Ten history to record five 11-win seasons in a six-year span; his five 11-win seasons rank second most in Big Ten history, along with Joe Paterno (five with Penn State as Big Ten member). Prior to Dantonio’s arrival, MSU had not recorded an 11-win season in its history, and had just two 10-win seasons (1965 and 1999).
• Michigan State won its second Big Ten Championship in three years and ninth in school history with a 16-13 victory over No. 4 Iowa on Dec. 5, 2015. It marked Dantonio’s third Big Ten Championship (2010, 2013, 2015), establishing a school record (previous: Duffy Daugherty and George Perles with two each). The Spartans also won Big Ten titles in 1953, 1965, 1966, 1978, 1987 and 1990.
• With a 43-11 record, the 2015 senior class finished their careers as the winningest in school history (previous record: 42 wins in 2013 and 2014). The 20-member 2015 senior class was a part of three bowl wins (2012 Buffalo Wild Wings, 2014 Rose, 2015 Cotton), two Big Ten division titles (2013, 2015) and two Big Ten Championships (2013, 2015).
• Michigan State had its school-record four-game bowl winning streak snapped with a loss to eventual National Champion and second-ranked Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The four-game bowl winning streak also tied a Big Ten record.
• Michigan State made its 26th postseason bowl appearance in 2015 and its second consecutive trip to the Cotton Bowl. MSU is one of only two Big Ten teams as a conference member to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic (Ohio State, 1987). The Spartans are 11-15 overall in bowl games.
• Michigan State extended its school record by playing in a bowl game for the ninth consecutive season in 2015 (2007 Champs Sports Bowl, 2009 Capital One Bowl, 2010 Alamo Bowl, 2011 Capital One Bowl, 2012 Outback Bowl, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 2014 Rose Bowl, 2015 Cotton Bowl, 2015 College Football Playoff Semifinal at Cotton Bowl). The nine-year bowl streak is currently the second longest in the Big Ten and 12th longest in the NCAA FBS.
• Michigan State defeated nine bowl teams in 2015, including four wins over AP Top 25 teams (No. 7 Oregon on Sept. 12, No. 12 Michigan on Oct. 17, No. 2 Ohio State on Nov. 21, No. 4 Iowa on Dec. 5). It marked the first time in school history the Spartans beat three AP Top-10 teams (No. 7 Oregon, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 4 Iowa) in the same season. MSU also topped Western Michigan, Air Force, Central Michigan, Indiana and Penn State, schools that all played in the postseason. In the final AP rankings, MSU defeated four Top 25 teams (No. 4 Ohio State, No. 9 Iowa, No. 12 Michigan, No. 19 Oregon).
• MSU’s 65 wins since 2010 are tied for fifth most among NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams and most in the Big Ten during that same period. The Spartans have posted six consecutive winning seasons, a first for the program since 1985-90. MSU has won 65 of its last 81 games (65-16; .802), dating back to the beginning of the 2010 season. During that span, MSU has claimed three Big Ten Championships (2010, 2013, 2015) and three Big Ten Division titles (2011, 2013, 2015). In addition, the Spartans recorded a school-record four consecutive bowl victories (2012 Outback against No. 18 Georgia, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings against TCU, 2014 Rose Bowl Game against No. 5 Stanford, 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 4 Baylor), which also tied a Big Ten record.
• During conference play, Michigan State has won 25 of its last 27 games against Big Ten opponents, dating back to the 2012 regular-season finale, including 18 wins by double-figures.
Mark Dantonio NOTES
• Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, who was a finalist for three national coach of the year awards (Bobby Dodd, George Munger, Eddie Robinson) in 2015, owns an 87-33 (.725) record in nine seasons as head coach of the Spartans. His .725 winning percentage currently ranks third best at MSU. He won his 71st game at MSU on Oct. 25, 2014, against Michigan to move into second place all-time in victories in school history (record: Duffy Daugherty, 109). Dantonio won his 100th career game as a head coach on Oct. 17, 2015, at Michigan Stadium as the Spartans rallied to defeat the Wolverines, 27-23, on a 38-yard fumble return as time expired; his career record stands at 105-50 (.677) in 12 seasons. Dantonio’s .722 winning percentage (52-20) in Big Ten games ranks first in MSU history (minimum 10 Big Ten games).
• A two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year (2010, 2013), Dantonio has led Michigan State to Top 25 finishes in six of his nine seasons (2008: No. 24 in both polls; 2010: No. 14 in both polls; 2011: No. 10 USA TODAY/No. 11 AP; 2013: No. 3 in both polls; 2014: No. 5 in both polls; and 2015: No. 6 in both polls). His six AP Top-25 finishes are tied for second most in school history (“Biggie” Munn, who coached from 1947-53, had six consecutive from 1948-53). Daugherty’s teams posted seven Top-25 finishes during his 19-year tenure from 1954-72. MSU and Alabama (No. 7 in 2013, No. 4 in 2014, No. 1 in 2015) are the only schools to finish in the Top 10 of the last three final AP Polls.
• Dantonio also extended his school record for most bowl appearances (nine) by a head coach with a trip to the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic in 2015 (previous record: Perles with seven from 1983-94). Dantonio is 4-5 in bowl games at Michigan State, including a school-record four-game winning streak (2012 Outback, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings, 2014 Rose, 2015 Cotton). Dantonio has led his teams to 11 bowl berths in 12 seasons as a head coach (nine at MSU, two at Cincinnati). Dantonio’s nine-game bowl streak at Michigan State is tied for the fourth longest by an active head coach at the same school and is the longest in the Big Ten.
• Dantonio ranks third in Spartan history with 120 games coached at Michigan State (Daugherty: 183; Perles: 139). Dantonio is the third-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten (Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: 18th season; Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: 11th season) and 10th-longest in the FBS.
• Dantonio is one of just six active coaches in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision to own at least a .700 winning percentage while coaching in at least 100 games at the same school (Les Miles, LSU; Gary Patterson, TCU; Nick Saban, Alabama; Bob Stoops, Oklahoma; Dabo Swinney, Clemson).
• Michigan State is 26-10 (.722) in Big Ten road games under Dantonio, including a 20-4 record (.833) since 2010. Dantonio has won at least one road game at every Big Ten stadium.
• Michigan State will face eight teams on its 2016 schedule that appeared in postseason bowl games last season, including two of its three non-conference opponents (Sept. 17 at Notre Dame; Oct. 8 vs. BYU). Spartan Big Ten opponents Wisconsin (Sept. 24), Indiana (Oct. 1), Northwestern (Oct. 15), Michigan (Oct. 29), Ohio State (Nov. 19) and Penn State (Nov. 26) also played in bowl games last season.
• Michigan State’s 2016 season opener against Furman is set for Friday, Sept. 2 at Spartan Stadium. This marks the sixth consecutive season the Spartans will open on a Friday night. The Spartans are 5-0 in their previous Friday night games under Dantonio.
• Michigan State and Notre Dame will renew their rivalry on Sept. 17 in Notre Dame Stadium after not playing each other the past two seasons. The Fighting Irish return to Spartan Stadium on Sept. 23, 2017.
• The Spartans will take on BYU (Oct. 8 in Spartan Stadium) for the first time in school history. MSU will make the return trip with their first-ever appearance in the 63,470-seat LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah, on Sept. 12, 2020. The Cougars went 9-4 last season as an independent and fell to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
• The 2016 season also marks the Big Ten’s return to a nine-game conference schedule for the first time since 1982-84. Michigan State will open Big Ten play against Wisconsin on Sept. 24 in Spartan Stadium and travel to Indiana on Oct. 1 before concluding its non-conference schedule against BYU on Oct. 8. MSU has five Big Ten home games (Sept. 24 vs. Wisconsin; Oct. 15 vs. Northwestern; Oct. 29 vs. Michigan; Nov. 12 vs. Rutgers; Nov. 19 vs. Ohio State) and four conference road games (Oct. 1 at Indiana; Oct. 22 at Maryland; Nov. 5 at Illinois; Nov. 26 at Penn State).
• Michigan State will be looking for its eighth win in nine tries against Michigan on Oct. 29 in Spartan Stadium. The Spartans have won seven of their last eight meetings over the Wolverines, including a school-record four consecutive times in East Lansing. MSU has won three straight overall in the series.
STAFF CONTINUITY SPARKS DANTONIO’S SUCCESS
• MSU head coach Mark Dantonio has repeatedly stressed the importance of continuity on his coaching staff as one of the main reasons for Michigan State’s success during his tenure. Four of MSU’s nine assistant coaches have been at MSU since Dantonio’s arrival in 2007 (assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Harlon Barnett, offensive line coach Mark Staten, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Mike Tressel, co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Dave Warner). Those four also coached under Dantonio at Cincinnati. Dantonio, Barnett, Staten and Tressel have been on the same staff since 2004. MSU is one of only three schools (Navy, Oregon) in the FBS to have at least five coaches on the same staff for the past 10 years.
• In addition, quarterbacks coach/recruiting coordinator Brad Salem is in his seventh year on the staff, wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel is in his sixth year, and defensive line coach Ron Burton is in his fourth year. Co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Jim Bollman, who is also in his fourth season, has coached with Dantonio on three previous occasions: Youngstown State (1986-90), Michigan State (1995-97) and Ohio State (2001-03). Linebackers/special teams coordinator Mark Sndyer is in his second year on the staff at MSU.
PERSONNEL BRIEFING: OFFENSE
Letterwinners returning (2):
Tyler O’Connor (Sr.-5, 6-3, 228, 6 games/1 start, 13-of-24 passing (.542), 133 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT)
Damion Terry (Jr., 6-4, 232, 10 games, 2-of-7 passing (.286), 15 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs)
Outlook: The biggest change for the Spartans in 2016 will be who is behind center, as Connor Cook, the winningest quarterback in school history who collected a 34-5 record in his three seasons as the starter, graduated in December 2015 and is now preparing for a career in the NFL. Cook, the 2015 Big Ten Quarterback of the Year and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner, left East Lansing as the school’s all-time record holder in passing yards (9,194), touchdown passes (71) and total offense (9,403 yards). The only two-time MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game, Cook helped lead the Spartans to two Big Ten Championships (2013, 2015), wins in the 2014 Rose Bowl and 2015 Cotton Bowl, and a berth in the 2015 College Football Playoff during his career . . . the competition for who replaces Cook began in spring practice and will continue in preseason camp between returning letterwinners Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry. The duo showed their promise in last season’s win at No. 2 Ohio State on Nov. 21. With Cook sidelined due to a shoulder injury, O’Connor and Terry split time and helped the Spartans snap the Buckeyes’ 23-game winning streak with a 17-14 victory in Columbus. O’Connor, who will be a fifth-year senior, started against Ohio State and was named the team’s offensive player of the week for his performance, which included career highs in passing yards (89) and completions (7). He also showed off his running ability with eight carries for 25 carries against the Buckeyes, including two first downs. In O’Connor’s other extended action of the season, he was 6-of-11 passing for 44 yards and a TD in the win against Maryland on Nov. 14. For his career, he has completed 63 percent of his passes (34-of-54) for 374 yards, four TDs and two interceptions in 14 games of action . . . Terry played in 10 games last season, but most of those were brief appearances where he either lined up as a wide receiver or in the Wildcat formation at quarterback. Terry is also a threat to run as he collected 68 yards on the ground in 21 attempts (3.2 avg.) in 2015. In 15 career games, Terry has completed 54 percent of his career throws (14-of-26) for 103 yards . . . red-shirt freshman Brian Lewerke will also compete for playing time after a successful spring season . . . incoming freshman Messiah deWeaver was an early enrollee and gained valuable experience during spring drills.
Letterwinners returning (4):
RB Gerald Holmes (Jr., 6-0, 222, 13 games/7 starts, 110 carries, 540 yards, 4.9 avg., 8 TDs, 41.5 ypg.)*
RB Madre London (So., 6-1, 206, 11 games/6 starts, 119 carries, 500 yards, 4.2 avg., 3 TDs, 45.5 ypg.)
RB LJ Scott (So., 6-1, 230, 14 games/1 start, 146 carries, 699 yards, 4.8 avg., 11 TDs, 49.9 ypg.)
FB Delton Williams (Sr., 6-1, 228, 9 games, 26 carries, 56 yards, 2.2 avg., 1 TD, 6.2 ypg.)
* Counting one player as returning starter at tailback
Outlook: The Spartans are well stocked at tailback with four returning letterwinners. Last season, the Spartans featured a trio of running backs who split a majority of the carries in Gerald Holmes, Madre London and LJ Scott. Each of those three backs started at least one game, recorded more than 100 carries during the season, and had a 100-yard rushing game . . . Holmes started the last seven games for the Spartans and during that stretch paced the team in rushing yards (387), carries (81) and rushing touchdowns (5). He also led the team in rushing in Big Ten games (438 yards on 89 carries; 54.8 ypg; 4.9 avg.). For the season, Holmes ranked second on the team in rushing yards (540) and rushing TDs (8) and third in carries (110) . . . Scott, an All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection by ESPN.com and BTN.com, led the team in rushing (699 yards; 49.9 ypg.; 4.8 avg.), rushing TDs (11) and carries (146). He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice (11 carries for 76 yards and two TDs vs. No. 7 Oregon; 18 carries for 146 yards and 2 TDs vs. Purdue) and scored the game-winning touchdown vs. No. 4 Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game with 27 seconds remaining. His 11 rushing TDs were the second most by a Spartan freshman in a single season (Sedrick Irvin, 16, 1996) and he ranked second on the team in scoring with 66 points . . . London started the first six games of the season before an ankle injury in Week 6 against Rutgers sidelined him for three games. He finished the season ranked second on the team in carries (119) and third in rushing (500 yards; 45.5 ypg.; 4.2 avg.) and rushing TDs (3) in 11 games of action . . . three-year letterwinner Delton Williams, who played in nine games last season and has rushed for 610 yards and seven TDs in 31 career games, will also compete for playing time at both fullback and tailback . . . at fullback, the Spartans are looking to replace four-year letterwinner and three-year starter Trevon Pendleton . . . other options at fullback for the Spartans in addition to Williams are graduate transfer Prescott Line (SMU) and sophomore Collin Lucas.
Letterwinners returning (6):
Edward Barksdale III (Sr.-5, 6-2, 203, 7 games)
Felton Davis III (So., 6-4, 192, 7 games, 2 catches, 50 yards, 25.0 avg., 0 TDs, 7.1 ypg.)
Matt Macksood (Sr.-5, 5-11, 194, 14 games)
Monty Madaris (Sr.-5, 6-1, 207, 10 games, 2 catches, 47 yards, 23.5 avg., 0 TDs, 4.7 ypg.)
R.J. Shelton (Sr., 5-11, 202, 14 games/5 starts, 43 catches, 503 yards, 11.7 avg., 4 TDs, 35.9 ypg.)
Brandon Sowards (So., 6-0, 189, 7 games)
Letterwinners lost (4):
DeAnthony Arnett (10 games/1 start, 6 catches, 106 yards, 17.7 avg., 2 TDs, 10.6 ypg.)
Aaron Burbridge (14 games/13 starts, 85 catches, 1,258 yards, 14.8 avg., 7 TDs, 89.9 ypg.)
Macgarrett Kings Jr. (13 games/10 starts, 40 catches, 519 yards, 13.0 avg., 5 TDs, 39.9 ypg.)
AJ Troup (11 games, 2 catches, 28 yards, 14.0 avg., 0 TDs, 2.5 ypg.)
Outlook: For the second year in a row, Michigan State must replace the Big Ten Receiver of the Year, as Aaron Burbridge followed in the footsteps of Tony Lippett in 2015 by setting an MSU single-season record with 85 catches for 1,258 yards and seven touchdowns. Burbridge became the first Spartan to lead the Big Ten in both receptions and receiving yards in the same season . . . the Spartans also lost four-year letterwinner Macgarrett Kings Jr., who had 116 catches for 1,461 yards and nine TDs in his career . . . the top candidate to emerge as the No. 1 receiver is three-year letterwinner R.J. Shelton, who has seen his production increase every season and figures to play a major role as a senior in 2016. Shelton established career highs last year with 43 receptions for 503 yards and four touchdowns, and he also rushed for 127 yards on 24 carries (5.3 avg.). The versatile playmaker, who also has returned kickoffs the past three seasons, has accumulated more than 2,500 all-purpose yards in his career and was named to the 2016 Paul Hornung Award Watch List (nation’s most versatile player) . . . although Felton Davis III only played in seven games and had two catches as a true freshman, the coaching staff wanted to get him some valuable experience on the field, knowing his presence would be needed in 2016. Davis showed his potential with a big 22-yard third-down reception for a first down against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game that led to a field goal in the first quarter, and he also had a team-long 28-yard catch against No. 2 Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. He enters preseason camp as a co-starter at split end, along with fifth-year senior Monty Madaris, who has seven catches for 103 yards in 23 career games. Madaris is in the mix for a starting role after a solid spring . . . returning letterwinners Edward Barksdale III, Matt Macksood and Brandon Sowards will also compete for playing time . . . Darrell Stewart Jr., who will be a red-shirt freshman in 2016, saw plenty of reps in the spring with the first and second team and will see playing time . . . two early enrollees – Donnie Corley and Cam Chambers – showed their potential during spring practice and will be in the mix to play right away in the fall.
Letterwinners returning (8):
OG/C Brian Allen (Jr., 6-2, 304, 14 games/12 starts), OT David Beedle (So., 6-5, 314, 10 games), OG Brandon Clemons (Gr.-6, 6-3, 302, 13 games), OT Dennis Finley (Jr., 6-7, 271, 2 games/1 start), OL Kodi Kieler (Sr.-5, 6-6, 319, 11 games/11 starts), OL Miguel Machado (Sr., 6-6, 315, 7 games), OG Benny McGowan (Sr.-5, 6-3, 333, 14 games/8 starts), OL Nick Padla (So., 6-6, 308, 13 games)
Outlook: Although Michigan State is losing three starters, including All-Americans Jack Allen (center) and Jack Conklin (left tackle), the Spartans are returning eight letterwinners to the offensive line in 2016. In addition to Allen and Conklin, two-year starting right guard Donavon Clark, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, must be replaced . . . the two returning starters, Brian Allen and Kodi Kieler, have plenty of experience. Allen, who earned Freshman All-America honors his first season in 2014, started 10 games at left guard last season along with two at center when his brother, Jack, missed two games due to an injury. Allen’s versatility and leadership will be counted on in 2016. The Outland Trophy Watch List selection is slated as the starting left guard but can also play center . . . Kieler, a three-year letterwinner, has started the past two years at right tackle. He will shift to center as a fifth-year senior this fall after having previous experience at the position earlier in his career and also during spring practice . . . the one positive from all of the injuries suffered along the o-line last season was the experience gained by several players, including Benny McGowan and David Beedle. McGowan ended up starting eight games, four at left guard and four at right guard, and should solidify one of the starting guard roles as a fifth-year senior in 2016. He also played center last season . . . Beedle, a former defensive lineman who converted to the offensive side of the ball in spring practice in 2015, was forced into the playing rotation at left guard vs. Purdue in Week 5, and also saw significant time against Rutgers and Indiana. He will have an opportunity for an increased role as a sophomore this upcoming season; he enters preseason practice as the starting left tackle . . . three-year letterwinner Brandon Clemons, an experienced guard who has seen action in 32 career games, will compete for a starting position on the right side after being granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA . . . junior Dennis Finley, who filled in for the injured All-American Conklin at left tackle against Central Michigan and Purdue, unfortunately had his season cut short after suffering a broken fibula and tibia in the first half against the Boilermakers in his first career start. He returned to action in spring practice. Finley, along with returning letterwinnner Miguel Machado, will compete for the starting spot at right tackle.
Letterwinners returning (3):
Jamal Lyles (Sr.-5, 6-3, 257, 14 games/5 starts, 8 catches, 133 yards, 16.6 avg., 1 TD, 9.5 ypg.)
Josiah Price (Sr.-5, 6-4, 248, 12 games/3 starts, 23 catches, 267 yards, 11.6 avg., 6 TDs, 22.2 ypg.)
Matt Sokol (So., 6-5, 250, 14 games)
Outlook: Three of the five tight ends that earned letters last season are back in 2016 as the position continues to be a strength for the Spartans. The returning group combined for 31 catches, 400 yards and seven TDs in 2015 . . . fifth-year senior Josiah Price led the unit for the third straight season with 23 receptions for 267 yards, and tied a school record for the second year in a row for most touchdown catches by a Spartan tight end with six. The Mackey Award Watch List selection has 16 career TD receptions, most by a tight end in school history . . . fifth-year senior Jamal Lyles, who has 18 catches for 265 yards and one TD in 41 career games, also returns for the Spartans . . . sophomore Matt Sokol, who saw action at fullback and special teams to earn his first letter in 2015, will also compete for playing time in the rotation . . . Paul Lang, who started nine games as a fifth-year senior, had a career-high 11 catches for 129 yards in 2015.
PERSONNEL BRIEFING: DEFENSE
Letterwinners returning (3):
DE Demetrius Cooper (Jr., 6-5, 253, 13 games, 22 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 2 FF)
DE Evan Jones (Sr.-5, 6-5, 251, 13 games, 7 tackles, 0.5 TFL)
NT Malik McDowell (Jr., 6-6, 276, 14 games/14 starts, 41 tackles, 13 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 block)
Letterwinners lost (5):
DE Shilique Calhoun (14 games/14 starts, 49 tackles, 15 TFLs, 10.5 sacks, 3 PBUs, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 block)
DT Craig Evans (14 games, 21 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1 sack)
DT Joel Heath (12 games/12 starts, 31 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
DT Damon Knox (14 games/1 start, 15 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 1 FR)
DE Lawrence Thomas (14 games/14 starts, 38 tackles, 5 TFLs, 3 sacks, 6 PBUs)
Outlook: The Spartans have featured one of the best defensive lines in the nation the past three seasons, ranking among the NCAA FBS leaders in sacks and rushing defense. MSU has the difficult task of replacing three starters from last season’s team that won the Big Ten Championship and reached the College Football Playoff. All three departing starters were fifth-year seniors who were invited to the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine: defensive end Shilique Calhoun, defensive tackle Joel Heath and defensive end Lawrence Thomas. MSU was one of just four programs in the nation to send three defensive linemen to the combine. In addition, Calhoun was the first defensive lineman in program history to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors three times . . . the one starter returning, however, could be one of the most disruptive defensive players in the country in 2016 – junior Malik McDowell earned Freshman All-America honors in 2014 and second-team All-Big Ten accolades as a sophomore in 2015 with 13 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, and should only see his production increase this season. McDowell will anchor the line in his third season and could play a multitude of positions; he has played on the inside his first two seasons and could also see action at end this fall. He was named to watch lists for the Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy and Outland Trophy . . . junior Demetrius Cooper appears ready for a starting role at defensive end after serving as Calhoun’s backup the past two seasons. Cooper primarily played on third downs last season and still managed to rank second on the team with five sacks. He has shown a knack for making plays in his limited playing time with 8.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and a blocked kick in 26 career games . . . opposite of Cooper, fifth-year senior Evan Jones will also compete for a starting position at defensive end. A converted tight end, Jones has eight tackles in 25 career games and earned his second letter as a junior in 2015 . . . sophomores Robert Bowers and Dillon Alexander, red-shirt freshmen Justice Alexander and Kenny Willekes, and freshman Mufi Hunt will also compete for playing time at defensive end . . . graduate transfer Gabe Sherrod, an FCS All-American last season after recording 25 tackles for loss at Delaware State, will immediately be in the mix for playing time at defensive end . . . on the inside of the line, red-shirt freshman Raequan Williams impressed the coaching staff with a strong showing in spring practice and is slated as the starting defensive tackle entering preseason camp . . . Kevin Williams, a graduate transfer from Nebraska, was granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and will look to make an impact at defensive tackle.
Letterwinners returning (9):
Byron Bullough (So., 6-1, 228, 9 games)
Riley Bullough (Sr.-5, 6-2, 227, 14 games/14 starts, 106 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs, 2 FF, 2 FR)
Ed Davis^ (Sr.-6, 6-2, 237, 13 games/12 starts, 58 tackles, 12 TFLs, 7 sacks, 2 PBUs)
Andrew Dowell (So., 6-1, 218, 13 games, 22 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FR)
Chris Frey (Jr., 6-2, 227, 14 games, 23 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 1 FR)
Sean Harrington (Jr., 6-3, 220, 8 games)
T.J. Harrell (So., 6-0, 203, 10 games, 2 tackles)
Shane Jones (Jr., 6-1, 230, 13 games, 23 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 2 FF)
Jon Reschke (Jr., 6-2, 227, 14 games/14 starts, 75 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2 sacks)
^ applying for sixth year of eligibility in 2016; stats from 2014 season
Letterwinners lost (2):
Darien Harris (14 games/14 games, 90 tackles, 9 TFLs, 3 PBUs)
Michael Topolinski (1 game)
Outlook: Michigan State’s strength on defense in 2016 should be at linebacker, as the Spartans return two of their three starters from last season – Riley Bullough (Mike) and Jon Reschke (Sam) – along with the possibility of 2014 starter Ed Davis, who is applying for a sixth year of eligibility after missing his fifth year in 2015 due to a torn ACL he suffered in preseason camp . . . in his first year starting at middle linebacker as a junior in 2015, Bullough led the Spartans with 106 tackles and proved to be a playmaker with 7.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks, two interceptions, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He will be looked to again in 2016 as one of the leaders on the defense . . . Reschke filled in for Davis at Sam linebacker and started all 14 games as a sophomore last season, ranking fifth on the team with 75 tackles, including 5.5 for losses and two sacks. He saw action at the Star position (weakside) during spring practice in anticipation of Davis’ return at Sam and can play both positions . . . Davis, a preseason selection for the Bednarik Watch List heading into 2015 as the nation’s best defensive player, led the Spartans as a junior in 2014 in production points during the regular season and ranked fourth on the team with 58 tackles, including 12 for losses with seven sacks. In 40 career games, he has proved his worth as a playmaker by producing 11 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss . . . two-year letterwinner Chris Frey has gained plenty of experience in his first two years in East Lansing and will continue to see time in the playing rotation; the junior has 42 tackles, including five for losses, in 27 career games . . . sophomore Andrew Dowell (22 tackles) was one of just six true freshmen to earn a letter in 2015 and will continue to be in the mix for a starting position at Star after seeing time as a starter during the spring . . . junior Shane Jones tallied 23 tackles in back-up duty at middle linebacker last season and will push for playing time, along with sophomore Byron Bullough.
Letterwinners returning (10):
CB Vayante Copeland (So., 5-11, 190, 2 games/2 starts, 7 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 INT)
CB/S Demetrious Cox (Sr.-5, 6-1, 197, 14 games/14 starts, 79 tackles, 2 TFLs, 3 INTs, 7 PBUs, 1 FR)
CB Darian Hicks (Sr., 5-11, 184, 11 games/6 starts, 33 tackles, 3 PBUs)
S Zac Leimbach (Sr.-5, 5-11, 195, 9 games)
S Grayson Miller (So., 6-3, 208, 12 games/4 starts, 24 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT)
S Matt Morrissey (So., 6-2, 201, 12 games, 5 tackles)
S Montae Nicholson (Jr., 6-2, 219, 14 games/10 starts, 83 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 3 INTs, 2 PBUs, 1 FF)
CB Tyson Smith (So., 5-11, 170, 7 games/1 start, 5 tackles, 1 PBU)
S Jalen Watts-Jackson (So., 5-11, 186, 7 games, 5 tackles)
S Khari Willis (So., 5-11, 211, 9 games/3 starts, 11 tackles, 1 PBU)
Letterwinners lost (5):
CB Arjen Colquhoun (14 games/11 starts, 45 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 10 PBUs, 2 FF, 1 FR)
CB Jermaine Edmondson (14 games, 24 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 3 PBUs, 2 FR)
S Chris Laneaux (5 games, 1 tackle)
S Mark Meyers (6 games, 3 tackles)
S RJ Williamson (6 games/5 starts, 24 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 INTs, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
Outlook: After a tumultuous year in the secondary due to multiple injuries, the Spartans appear to be loaded in the defensive backfield in 2016 with 10 letterwinners back as they look to regain their status as one of the top pass defenses in the country. Last season, MSU did not finish in the NCAA FBS Top 25 in pass efficiency defense for the first time since 2010 after fielding seven different starting lineups in the secondary. Seven players return with starting experience, including several underclassmen who were thrust into prominent roles earlier than expected in 2015. The Spartans did rank No. 23 in the nation with 15 interceptions, and in the last four games against Big Ten opponents, only allowed 185.0 yards per game through the air . . . fifth-year senior Demetrious Cox, who split time at cornerback and safety last season, started the last four games at safety and will return to that role in 2016. Cox had his best year as a Spartan in 2015, recording career highs in tackles (79), pass break-ups (7) and interceptions (3). He will be looked upon to provide leadership to an experienced but still relatively young secondary unit . . . opposite of Cox at safety is two-year letterwinner Montae Nicholson, who improved throughout his sophomore year and led the team with 40 tackles in the last five games of the season. One of the most athletic players on the team, Nicholson ranked third on the team with 83 tackles in 2015 and also tied for the team lead with three interceptions. The Spartans are looking for Nicholson to make continued strides as he enters his third season in East Lansing . . . a pair of true freshmen, Grayson Miller and Khari Willis, started at safety midway through last season and return for their second year with starting experience. Miller started four games and had 24 tackles and one interception, while Willis started three times and collected 11 stops. Miller also action at linebacker during spring practice . . . at cornerback, senior Darian Hicks was limited to six starts his junior season due to injuries but does have 16 career starts in 38 games of action. He enters preseason practice as one of the starting corners . . . promising sophomore Vayante Copeland earned a starting position out of preseason camp last year as a red-shirt freshman and made an immediate impact in his first two games, but unfortunately a neck injury in Week 2 vs. Oregon forced him to miss the rest of the season. He recorded an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter at Western Michigan to seal the season-opening win, and had three tackles against the No. 7 Ducks before exiting the game. Copeland participated in winter conditioning and spring practice . . . sophomore Tyson Smith, who as a true freshman was pressed into action in the second half of the season and earned a start at Nebraska, will get extended looks at cornerback . . . returning letterwinners Matt Morrissey, Jalen Watts-Jackson and Zac Leimbach will also compete for playing time at safety, in addition to red-shirt freshmen cornerbacks Josh Butler, David Dowell and Kaleel Gaines.
PERSONNEL BRIEFING: SPECIAL TEAMS
• Placekicker: Senior Michael Geiger will enter his fourth season as the starting placekicker in 2016. Geiger led the team in scoring for the second year in a row as a junior with 87 points (6.7 ppg.), which ranked seventh in the Big Ten. He was 12-for-19 in field-goal attempts, including a game-winning 41-yarder at No. 2 Ohio State as time expired, giving the Spartans the 17-14 victory over the Buckeyes en route to the Big Ten title. Geiger ranks second in MSU history in extra-points made (159), fifth in field-goal percentage (.719) and points (282), and ninth in field goals made (41).
• Punter: Sophomore Jake Hartbarger ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting during his first season as the starter in 2015 with a 42.7-yard average. A Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection by BTN.com and ESPN.com, Hartbarger placed 21 punts inside the 20 and boomed 17 punts of 50-plus yards. Hartbarger is just the third starting punter since Dantonio’s arrival in 2007, joining Aaron Bates (2007-10) and Mike Sadler (2011-14).
• Long Snapper: With the departure of four-year starter Taybor Pepper, the Spartans are searching for a new starting long snapper in 2016. Pepper played in 54 games from 2012-15, tying a school record for most games played.
• Kickoff Specialist: Fifth-year senior Kevin Cronin has been the team’s starting kickoff specialist the past two seasons. Cronin owns an average of 62.0 yards per kickoff with 70 touchbacks. In 2014, Cronin ranked among the NCAA FBS leaders in kickoffs (third with 99), kickoff yards (third with 6,279), kickoff average (10th at 63.4) and touchbacks (tied for 13th with 46).
• Kick Returner: Senior R.J. Shelton, who ranks sixth in MSU history in kick return yards (1,407) and seventh in kick returns (59), has spent the past three seasons returning kickoffs for the Spartans. He averaged 21.8 yards per kickoff last season (415 yards on 19 returns), including a season-long 58-yarder against Indiana. In three seasons, his average is 23.8 yards per kickoff, including one return for a touchdown (90-yarder at Penn State in 2014).
• Punt Returner: Departing senior Macgarrett Kings Jr. was the team’s primary punt returner last season (10 returns for 38 yards), but R.J. Shelton also returned punts in 2015 (3 returns for 6 yards).