2009 Outlook: Offense
Aug. 5, 2009
In 2008, Michigan State won nine regular-season games for the first time since 1999, made its first New Year's Day bowl appearance in nine years and finished No. 24 in the final Associated Press and USA TODAY Polls. The Spartans finished third in the Big Ten standings at 6-2 - their highest finish in the league standings since tying for second place in 1999 (6-2). MSU's only conference losses came against 2008 Big Ten co-champions Penn State and Ohio State.
This season, the Spartans welcome back 18 starters from last year's 9-4 team, including seven on offense, eight on defense and three specialists. With the pieces in place, the Spartans are poised for another run at a Big Ten championship in 2009.
As MSU gears up for training camp next week, head coach Mark Dantonio - who has won more games (16) than any Spartan coach in his first two years - takes a position-by-position look at the 2009 Spartans.
Cousins was efficient in his five games of action last season, completing 74 percent of his passes (32-for-43) with two touchdowns. Playing in the second half against Ohio State after Hoyer suffered an injury, Cousins was 18-of-25 passing for 161 yards and a touchdown. He also was 7-of-9 for 81 yards, including a 23-yard TD, at Penn State, and completed 4-of-5 throws for 36 yards in his lone drive in the Capital One Bowl against Georgia. Cousins furthered his development in the spring, culminating with an impressive performance in the Green-White game, where he passed for 357 yards and four TDs on 29-of-43 throws.
"I think Kirk had an outstanding red shirt freshman year," Dantonio said. "Every chance he had, every opportunity he had to go in and make plays, he made plays. Kirk brings some game-time experience to our football team, and I think he's going to continue to get better and better. His knowledge of the offense is impressive. He studies extremely hard at the football process and is a very dedicated athlete."
Nichol, who saw action in three games with the Sooners in 2007 before transferring to Michigan State, is a talented multi-threat quarterback who brings an added dimension to the Spartan offense. He served as the scout team quarterback last fall, and improved his grasp of the offense in the spring by taking reps with the first- and second-teams. Nichol was equally as sharp in the Green-White game, leading the White to a 38-37 overtime victory. He completed 20-of-28 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns, including scoring strikes of 39 and 32 yards.
"Keith had an excellent year as our scout team quarterback," remarked Dantonio. "He could basically emulate anyone we were going against. He's an extremely gifted athlete and possesses a great arm."
Heralded freshman Andrew Maxwell (6-3, 190), a high school All-American who participated in the 2008 Nike Elite 11 Quarterback Camp, also will join the roster when preseason camp begins in August.
"I think it will be a very interesting quarterback scenario," Dantonio said. "I really don't think we'll find out who the clear cut player is at that position until we see how Kirk and Keith truly handle game experiences, because I think that's what separates people. Sometimes you can play well in the spring, play well in August, but when it gets to the game, it's a bit different.
"Both Kirk and Keith have good mobility and can create, but I think you have to give the edge to Keith in that area," Dantonio continued. "Both of them will throw the ball very effectively, have strong arms, and seem to have pocket presence. I think Kirk obviously is a lot farther along in terms of the knowledge of the system. Keith didn't receive all of the coaching throughout the entire year, even though he sat in that room, because he wasn't getting the reps. So there's a learning curve there I think, but both of those guys are guys are committed to being good football players, and both of them study the game of football extremely hard. They are guys that every time they go out there, they are staying late or coming early type people. They have both got great leadership skills.
"We are going to give everybody ample opportunity. The nice thing about it is they are going to get their snaps and they will have a lot of opportunity to show who the guy is. I think this is a good situation for Michigan State football. We are excited, and with our freshman quarterback coming in, Andrew Maxwell, that gives us three quarterbacks with great ability. It speaks well for the near future."
Three lettermen - A.J. Jimmerson (5-10, 205, Sr.-5), Andre Anderson (5-9, 190, So.) and Ashton Leggett (5-11, 230, So.) - along with red-shirt freshman Caulton Ray (5-9, 195, R-Fr.) all saw plenty of carries in the spring. Incoming freshmen Edwin Baker (5-9, 200) and Larry Caper (5-11, 215), both of whom earned All-America honors in high school, also will have a chance to compete for playing time.
"We definitely lost a star in Javon Ringer, but with that being said, we have several guys who are good backs and we'll continue to try and work them in the offense," said Dantonio. "A.J. Jimmerson has had his moments, and Ashton Leggett and Andre Anderson do some things very, very well. What they did not do last year was hang on to the ball, but in terms of how they practiced and how they performed in scrimmages, these guys made plays, they gained yards, and they are tough. They are also very durable. So those are good things happening, and then you have a couple of guys coming in that have star power (Baker and Caper) and could play right away. We'll just have to see how it all sorts out once we get started."
Jimmerson, a fifth-year senior, is the most experienced member of the backfield with 32 career games under his belt. He has gained 205 yards on the ground with two touchdowns, and has also returned kickoffs the last two seasons. Anderson rushed for 97 yards on 26 carries as a red-shirt freshman, including a 75-yard effort on eight attempts against Eastern Michigan, while Leggett appeared in 12 games in 2008.
A key component to the MSU offense the past two seasons, the Spartans also return two experienced players at fullback, in Andrew Hawken (6-2, 248, Sr.-5) and Josh Rouse (6-3, 235, Sr.). Hawken battled injuries throughout last season, but still managed to grab 11 receptions for 81 yards in 11 games. Rouse, a converted linebacker, saw action in every game as a junior, primarily on special teams. He caught three passes, none bigger than a 7-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter in the win at Michigan. Andrew Pendy (6-2, 240, Sr.-5), Adam Setterbo (6-3, 240, So.) and Nick Bendzuck (6-2, 242, Jr.) also will provide depth at fullback.
"We are experimenting with Andrew Hawken because there's a lot of different positions he can play for us," said Dantonio. "He has great ability, does a good job blocking, and has very good hands. He pretty much went through all of last season with a dislocated toe, which really hampered him.
White, who led the team in receptions last season with 43, broke onto the scene as a junior with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games against Michigan (143 yards) and Wisconsin (164). The honorable mention All-Big Ten selection ranked second on the team in receiving yards (659) and his 71.0 receiving yards per game in league play ranked second in the conference. Thirty of White's 43 catches (70 percent) went for either first downs or a touchdown, including 13 on third down and one on fourth down.
Dell was first on the team in yards per catch (18.9 avg.) and receiving yards (679) and was second in receptions (36). With 16 starts in just two seasons, Dell has been a reliable receiver with 56 career catches, 899 receiving yards and five TDs, but after battling a hamstring injury in the second half of last season, he's looking to have even more of an impact as a deep-threat playmaker as a junior. Dell's big-game ability came through in the 2008 season opener at California when he recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (202), becoming the first Spartan receiver to record a 200-yard receiving game in seven years.
Cunningham appeared in all 13 games as a red-shirt freshman, with 12 starts at flanker. He ranked second on the team in receptions (41) and third in receiving yards (528), and his 31 first-down catches led the team. Cunningham had six catches of 20 or more yards and 76 percent of his receptions (31 of 41) resulted in a first down.
As a true freshman, Keshawn Martin (5-11, 185, So.) was a multi-threat weapon on offense in his first season. He caught 11 passes for 132 yards, rushed for 51 yards on nine carries, and completed 2-of-3 passes for 59 yards. Martin's wide-ranging athleticism will likely give him an even more expanded role in the Spartan offense in 2009.
"Those four guys (White, Dell, Cunningham, Martin) all return, and they were our four top receivers last year," said Dantonio. "When you break it down and look at each person, every one of those guys went through an injury period. Blair was the most consistent throughout the year - he had some really big games and catches. Mark played really well in the Cal game and had some other good games, but was really limited with his hamstring. B.J. had a good camp and played well early in the year.
"And then you have Keshawn Martin, who I think is a budding star for this program. Last year was his first ever as a receiver. He has great hands, great ball control, good catching ability, and is a big-play guy. He's also a viable return man. He's really a guy that can go."
Chris D. Rucker (5-10, 174, So.) and Fred Smith (6-2, 228, So.) both earned letters a season ago and will add depth at receiver, along with Myles White (6-1, 170, R-Fr.) and Donald Spencer (6-2, 205, Fr.).
"It's obviously very important that we win at the point of attack, and that starts up front," said Dantonio. "The guys are always kidding me about it, saying, `hey, coach, you always say it starts up front', but that's reality. And when Javon was stopped, the reality was that we were beat at the point of attack more often than not when that situation happened. But overall, he ran for a lot of touchdowns and for a lot of yards, so we were successful."
Nitchman ranks as the unit's most experienced lineman with 21 starts to his credit. The fifth-year senior, who has been named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List for the nation's top center, allowed only 1.5 sacks during the regular season and graded out as a winner in eight games.
In his first full year as the starting left tackle in 2008, Cironi started all 13 games and solidified the position left vacant by All-Big Ten second-team selection Pete Clifford. Cironi also saw action in seven games, including two starts, as a red-shirt freshman in 2006 due to an offensive line decimated by injuries. Although the veteran sat out of spring practice following shoulder surgery, Cironi will be near full strength heading into preseason camp.
With Cironi out of the lineup in the spring, fifth-year senior Brendon Moss (6-7, 284, Sr.-5) served as the top left tackle. Moss, a versatile lineman with game experience, adds depth to the line.
Foreman was one of the team's top newcomers last season, earning Freshman All-America honors after starting 11 games at left guard. He allowed only two sacks in nearly 350 passing plays during the regular season.
The new-look right side will feature J'Michael Deane (6-5, 312, Jr.) at tackle and Jared McGaha (6-6, 298, So.) at guard. Deane converted from a nose tackle to an offensive lineman during the 2007 season, and served as the understudy of second-team All-Big Ten pick Jesse Miller in 2008. Recognized by the coaching staff for his work ethic during bowl practices, Deane continued to make a mark with a solid spring season. McGaha, who is entering his third year, will have to fill the big shoes of three-year starter Roland Martin. The sophomore appears ready for the role following his work with the first team during spring practice.
"The left side of the line last year was a position that was inexperienced with a lot of question marks, and I think they played very well," Dantonio said of Cironi and Foreman. "This year, the right side of our line will have some new guys playing. The center position is solid and stable with Joel Nitchman.
"Players like J'Michael Deane, who moved over from defense a year and a half ago, and Jared McGaha, they are now ready to take that step, to move into a position where they are actually playing. They have learned enough to do that. Brendon Moss is another veteran who has played some for us. So those are exciting things for our line. We have some people who have played in and out a little bit, but there's no doubt the offensive line will be a critical part of who we are offensively."
Other linemen who gained experience during spring practice and could see action include right tackle Mike Schmeding (6-9, 330, Sr.-5), center John Stipek (6-5, 306, Sr.-5), left tackle D.J. Young (6-5, 310, Jr.), left tackle John Deyo (6-6, 298, R-Fr.), left guard Ethan Ruhland (6-5, 293, R-Fr.), right guard Chris McDonald (6-5, 305, R-Fr.) and right tackle Zach Hueter (6-6, 335, R-Fr.).
In his first year as the starting tight end, Charlie Gantt (6-5, 248, Jr.) led the team with four touchdown catches while ranking fourth in receiving yards (302) and fifth in receptions (19) en route to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors by the coaches and media. Sixty-eight percent (13-of-19) of his receptions resulted in either a first down or a touchdown, including an 82-yard TD at Indiana, which was the longest pass play in the Big Ten last season. Not only a sure-handed receiver, Gantt's ability as a blocker was also superb as he was named team Lineman of the Week against Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
"Charlie Gantt was probably our most improved player last season," Dantonio said. "He is a physical, big target who runs, catches and blocks well. I think he's very excited for this season."
In addition to Gantt, Garrett Celek (6-5, 240, So.) and Brian Linthicum (6-5, 245, So.) will see action at tight end. Celek, who appeared in 12 games last season with four starting assignments, caught six passes for 50 yards.
"Garrett played a lot last year as a red-shirt freshman," said Dantonio. "He has the same work ethic his brother had (Brent Celek, tight end at Cincinnati under Dantonio and now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles). I think there are good things around the corner for Garrett."
Linthicum is a transfer from Clemson who had to sit out the 2008 season but still practiced with the team. Now a sophomore in eligibility, Linthicum showcased his skills in the Green-White spring game by making six receptions for 69 yards. As a true freshman for Clemson in 2007, he had 11 catches for 76 yards and three touchdowns.
"I think the guy that a lot of people may not know about at this point is Brian Linthicum," Dantonio stated. "He's a guy that played about 400 snaps as a true freshman at Clemson and enters this season after sitting out last year. He has great body control, excellent hands and studies the game extremely hard."
Incoming freshman Dion Sims (6-6, 268), a high school All-American who was ranked as one of the top tight ends in the nation last year, also could make an impact at the position.
"The tight end position all of a sudden has become a strength of this football team," said Dantonio. "We will have the ability to use three tight ends, four tight ends if we want, and be able to move the tight end and make the fullback interchangeable, so there a lot of things we are able to do. They are all very intelligent players."
at the official