2011 Outlook: Special Teams & Overview
Aug. 7, 2011
Under fifth-year head coach Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has solidified itself as a perennial Top 25 program and one of the top teams in the Big Ten Conference.
The Spartans are coming off the winningest season in program history after going 11-2 in 2010 while claiming their first Big Ten Championship in 20 years. MSU has appeared in four consecutive bowl games, including two on New Year's Day, and finished No. 14 in both of the major polls last season.
This season, the Spartans are stocked with talent and depth at nearly every position as they prepare to defend their Big Ten title and attempt to reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since defeating USC in 1988. Michigan State welcomes back 15 starters - including eight who earned All-Big Ten recognition last season - and a total of 47 letterwinners overall.
In addition, several rising players who redshirted in 2010 and stood out during spring practice will get to vie for key spots on both offense and defense.
As MSU gears up for preseason camp, Dantonio, who has won more games (33) than any Spartan coach in his first four seasons, takes a position-by-position look at the 2011 Spartan special teams unit.
Michigan State has consistently fielded one of the top special teams units in the Big Ten during Dantonio's tenure, and last year was no exception. The Spartans featured first-team All-Big Ten honorees at both placekicker (Dan Conroy) and punter (Aaron Bates), while punt returner Keshawn Martin was rated the best in the conference by several media outlets.
In his first year as the starting placekicker last season, Conroy (5-10, 190, Jr.) had to replace Brett Swenson, MSU's all-time leader in scoring, field goals and extra points. The Spartans didn't miss a beat with Conroy, as he was a sensational 14-for-15 in field- goal attempts to lead the conference and rank fifth nationally with a .993 field-goal percentage. Conroy, who also led the team in scoring with 87 points, set a school record by hitting his first 13 field-goal attempts of the season.
Kevin Muma (6-0, 189, So.) also returns this season after taking over the kickoff duties for the first time in 2010. Muma, who averaged 64.5 yards on kickoffs and had 13 touchbacks last season, also will serve as the back-up placekicker, behind Conroy.
A starter for four years, Bates was more than just a quality punter for MSU - he was a clutch player who was a threat on fake attempts, which included his game-winning touchdown pass in overtime against Notre Dame last season, and he was also a leader, becoming the first punter in school history to be named a captain.
Red-shirt freshman Mike Sadler (6-0, 182), a lefty, will look to replace Bates and continue MSU's long-standing tradition at punter. The Spartans have had five punters in the NFL in the past 30 years.
"When we recruited Mike Sadler, he was one of the top punters in the country," Dantonio said. "I thought he showed a tremendous amount of maturity by coming here and then sitting out a year. He watched Aaron Bates and really grew. He'll do an outstanding job. He's got a big-time leg, good command of the snap, and the ball spins a little differently coming off his left foot."
One of the most overlooked aspects of special teams is the long snapper. Following the loss of four-year starter Alex Shackleton, Steve Moore (6-3, 223, R-So.) enters his first year in the role and will look to maintain the consistency of the unit.
Keshawn Martin, who will anchor the return team, already ranks eighth in MSU history in kick return yards (1,070) and 12th in punt return yards (385). He became the first Spartan to lead the Big Ten in punt returns last season with his 14.2-yard average, which ranked 11th nationally. Martin returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in the win over Wisconsin and ran back a kickoff 93 yards for a score in 2009 against Minnesota.
Bennie Fowler also will get a chance to return kickoffs. Fowler became MSU's top kick returner at the end of last season following Martin's Achilles injury, and finished second on the team with 336 kick return yards on 15 attempts (22.4 avg.).
The goal remains the same every year in East Lansing: the Rose Bowl. In just four years, Dantonio and his staff have built a solid foundation that continues to improve each season, and that work paid off with a Big Ten Championship in 2010.
Now, the Spartans are looking to stay on top. With a key group of veterans returning from last year's championship team along with a talented mix of newcomers, the program is in position to make a run for another Big Ten title during the 2011 season.
"We need to continue raising our level of play," Dantonio said. "When you look at it, every program has the things that they weigh and can look at as positives, and every program has things they need to continue to improve on. I think it needs to get to the point where we play against anybody, any place, and compete. We're very, very close to being able to do that.
"I think the process has always been here and that we will always challenge ourselves to be the best at what we're doing, whether that's academically, athletically or off the field. We want to try to do our very best - that's how we always set it up around here."
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