MSU Spartans
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Plaxico Burress should add some
firepower to the receiving corps

 
1998 Football Season Outlook

15 starters return from last year's 7-5 team.

August 10, 1998

EAST LANSING, Mich.--Michigan State's football program has made steady strides under fourth-year head coach Nick Saban, earning postseason bowl invitations in each of his first three seasons.

Coming off back-to-back six-win seasons (6-5-1 in 1995 and 6-6 in '96), the Spartans produced seven victories in 1997 (7-5).

With 37 returning lettermen, including 15 starters, from last year's 7-5 team, Coach Saban believes he has the necessary ingredients for continued improvement.

"Our expectations are higher," Saban said. "Our players understand that we were two plays away from being 9-2 in the regular season, instead of 7-4. It's important that our team learns how to play with more consistency. A winning attitude is beginning to permeate the team. Now, our players are expecting to win every time they step onto the field."

Michigan State's personnel losses are heaviest on the offensive side of the football. Gone are six starters, including quarterback Todd Schultz (two-year starter threw for 4,273 yards and 27 TDs), All-America tackle Flozell Adams, All-America guard Scott Shaw and tight end Josh Keur (three-year starter had 63 career receptions for 623 yards and 3 TDs).

The losses on defense are small in quantity but big in quality - All-America linebacker Ike Reese (four-year starter ranks third on MSU's all-time list with 420 career tackles) and cornerback Ray Hill (three-year starter had six career interceptions).

Offensive Scouting Report
Bill Burke (6-5, 205, Jr.) is the heir apparent to replace Todd Schultz at quarterback. Burke, who appeared in eight games as a backup in 1997, completed 23-of-35 passes (.657) for 255 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He earned two starts at quarterback as a red-shirt freshman in '96 when Schultz was sidelined with a knee injury.

"Bill Burke has the right kind of nervous system to be a good quarterback and he has good leadership ability," Saban said. "Bill doesn't have the arm talent of Todd Schultz or Tony Banks but when given playing time, he has shown a lot of promise and the ability to execute without a lot of mistakes.

"My biggest concerns have been his dependability and durability. Bill threw over 100 balls in each practice during the spring and he didn't experience any lower-back pain. We are learning how to manage his injury, and the off-season rehab program has strengthened his back. We're hopeful that this won't be a problem for Bill in the future."

Experience behind Burke is minimal where Sam Eyde (6-4, 210, Jr.), played six minutes at quarterback in 1996, and Ralph Truitt (6-2, 226, Sr.) has made only special teams appearances.

The marquee name on offense is tailback Sedrick Irvin (6-0, 223, Jr.), who became the first player in Spartan history to rush for 1,000 yards as both a true freshman and a sophomore. Irvin rushed for 1,270 yards in '97, the seventh-best single-season total in school history. He ranked among the Big Ten leaders in rushing (fifth at 105.8 yards per game), all-purpose yards (second at 160.8), punt returns (second at 13.6 avg.) and scoring (fifth at 7.0 points). Irvin has nine career 100-yard games and already stands seventh on MSU's all-time rushing list with 2,337 yards.

Irvin ranks among the nation's top 10 running backs according to both The Sporting News (No. 4) and Lindy's College Football Annual (No. 8).

"We wouldn't trade Sedrick Irvin for any other running back in the Big Ten," Saban said. "He's a complete football player.

"A combination of things make Sedrick a special player. His maturity level, both as a player and a person, is what has enabled him to come in and produce like he has early in his career. Sedrick is a confident player and a hard worker. He is one of the best players we have in the off-season conditioning program because of his work habits. He has never shown signs of trying to take a shortcut as a player. Sedrick simply loves to compete."

Garett Gould (6-2, 238, Sr.) returns as the incumbent at fullback with 20 career starting assignments under his belt. Leroy McFadden (6-3, 235, Jr.), who gained 332 yards as a back-up tailback last season, moves to fullback while depth at tailback is provided by Lloyd Clemons (5-11, 204, Sr.) and Billy Greene (6-1, 218, Jr.).

"Running back is the strength of our offense," Saban said. "Garett is an outstanding blocker. We've moved Leroy McFadden to fullback, which adds another dimension to that position. Leroy is an all-purpose type back who can be utilized as a runner, receiver and blocker. Both Lloyd Clemons and Billy Greene have a chance to contribute at tailback."

The biggest challenge on offense is retooling the offensive line which lost three starters in '97 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year Flozell Adams (left tackle), Scott Shaw (left guard) and Dave Mudge (right tackle). That unit enabled the Spartans to average 186.8 rushing yards per game last year, including six 200-yard games. Adams, Shaw and Mudge were responsible for 83 combined starting assignments.

Michigan State will build its '98 offensive line around center Jason Strayhorn (6-2, 286, Sr.) and right tackle Shaun Mason (6-5, 285, So.). Mason moved outside from right guard following spring drills.

"Rebuilding the offensive line is a priority," Saban said. "We lost three quality players in Flozell Adams, Scott Shaw and Dave Mudge. Returning starters Jason Strayhorn and Shaun Mason provide a solid nucleus to build around. Both Strayhorn and Mason got their baptisms by fire last year."

The top candidate to replace Adams at left tackle is Dave Sucura (6-3, 289, So.). Look for Shawn Murphy (6-4, 285, R-Fr.) and Mike Schutz (6-7, 296, So.) to fill the vacancies at left guard and right guard, respectively.

"Both Dave Sucura and Mike Schutz played well as backups last year," Saban said. "Shawn Murphy is one of the top young line prospects we have on the roster."

Others who should figure in the offensive line playing rotation are tackles Greg Robinson-Randall (6-5, 328, Jr.) and Matt Bonito (6-7, 285, So.), guards Casey Jensen (6-7, 289, Jr.) and Willie Comerford (6-3, 295, So.) plus center Josh Smith (6-4, 271, R-Fr.).

"Greg Robinson-Randall has really improved his conditioning during the off-season program and he has the physical ability to make an impact at his position," Saban said. "Casey Jensen has lettered twice and has the ability to play all the line positions. "

Tops on the list of tight end candidates are Chris Baker (6-3, 259, R-Fr.) and Brad Rainko (6-3, 235, Jr.). Rainko caught six passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns in '97.

Others who should push for playing time at the tight end position include Ivory McCoy (6-3, 223, So.) and veteran Kyle Rance (6-6, 244, Jr.). Rance had seven receptions for 95 yards (13.6 avg.) last season.

"We've lost a great player in Josh Keur but we're still in good shape at the tight end position," Saban said. "Chris Baker and Ivory McCoy are a couple of promising young players, who give us a little more speed and athletic ability at that position. Both Brad Rainko and Kyle Rance have played a significant number of minutes in the past. "

Michigan State's passing game lacked big-play ability in '97 as the wide receivers combined to average only 14.1 yards on 84 receptions.

"We simply have to get more production out of our skill players," Saban said. "The passing game didn't generate a lot of big plays last year.

"The future looks bright at this position. We have a number of inexperienced receivers with a lot of natural ability but we must turn some of that potential into production. A couple of those young guys need to develop quickly to stabilize the position and improve the quality at wide receiver."

The flanker job belongs to Gari Scott (6-1, 192, Jr.), who led the team in receptions in '97 with 41 for 680 yards (16.6 avg.) and seven TDs. Scott turned in a stellar performance vs. Washington in the Aloha Bowl, coming up with five catches for 114 yards and two scores.

"Gari Scott improved tremendously last year and put up some solid numbers," Saban said. "If Gari continues to improve and finishes more plays, he can become a top-quality receiver."

Plaxico Burress (6-6, 219, So.) won the starting job at split end thanks to an impressive spring practice. Burress had 21 receptions for 395 yards (18.8 avg.) and four touchdowns in three spring scrimmages. He caught 13 passes for 198 yards and three TDs in the Green-White spring game.

"Plaxico Burress should add some firepower to the receiving corps," Saban said. "He's a big guy with speed who's difficult to cover. Plaxico has good hands and the ability to run after the catch."

Depth at wide receiver is provided by Lavaile Richardson (6-2, 190, So.), Herb Haygood (5-11, 177, R-Fr.) and Demont Smith (5-10, 170, So.). Richardson caught nine passes for 90 yards (10.0 avg.) and a TD a year ago.

"Lavaile Richardson has a year of experience under his belt," Saban said.

"Herb Haygood showed a lot of promise as a redshirt last year. With the depth at tailback, we've decided to experiment with Herb at wide receiver. This might be our best chance to get the fastest guy on the team on the field."

Minus a big-play passing attack, Michigan State ranked near the middle of the Big Ten in most offensive categories, including fourth in rushing offense (186.8 yards per game), sixth in passing offense (191.9), sixth in total offense (378.7) and fifth in scoring offense (28.5 points).

"Offensively, the first thing we want to establish is physical toughness," Saban said. "Second, we want to develop our tempo and finish plays. Third, we want to eliminate turnovers. Last year, we never gave ourselves a chance to win against the best teams - Michigan, Ohio State and Washington. We committed 13 turnovers in those three games. Last, we want to improve as a short-yardage team and our third-down efficiency."

Defensive Scouting Report
With all the question marks on the offensive side of the football, it may be up to Michigan State's defense to pave the way in the early going.

The defensive line is talented, experienced and deep. That's why that unit is ranked as the second-best defensive front in the nation according to The Sporting News.

It begins with defensive ends Robaire Smith (6-5, 264, Jr.) and Dimitrius Underwood (6-7, 272, Sr.), who combined for 28 tackles for losses in 1997, including 20 sacks.

A preseason All-America selection by several publications, Smith is rated as the nation's No. 1 defensive end by The Sporting News and No. 2 by Lindy's.

Smith, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in '97, led the defensive line and ranked fifth on the team in tackles with 74 (38 solos, 36 assists). He led the Spartans in tackles for losses (16 for 66 yards) and sacks (12 for 58). Smith had four multiple-sack games in '97.

Underwood stood second among defensive linemen with 57 stops (30-27). He also ranked second on the team in tackles for losses (12 for 66 yards) and sacks (8 for 56).

The Spartans are set at defensive tackle with three players returning with starting experience, including Robert Newkirk (6-3, 295, Jr.), Desmond Thomas (6-3, 282, Sr.) and Pete Govens (6-4, 296, R-So.).

Newkirk, who has started 18 games over the last two seasons, was credited with 54 tackles (22-32) in '97, including six behind the line of scrimmage (24 yards) and three sacks (18).

Thomas started 10 times last season and registered 42 stops (20-22), including six for losses (34 yards) and three sacks (27).

Govens started the first three games of the '97 season at right defensive tackle before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter vs. Notre Dame.

Depth at the defensive end position is provided by Jace Sayler (6-5, 270, So.) and Nick Myers (6-2, 265, R-Fr.). Artie Steinmetz (6-4, 261, So.), who lettered as a backup to Smith at defensive end, has moved inside to tackle.

"Robaire Smith and Dimitrius Underwood are two of the best defensive ends around," Saban said. "Those two guys can put a lot of pressure on the quarterback from the edge.

"We have three proven veterans back at defensive tackle in Robert Newkirk, Desmond Thomas and Pete Govens. All three of those guys have the size and strength to play inside. They all play the run well but Thomas has really improved as a pass rusher and has shown the ability to push the pocket.

"For the first time in my four-year tenure, we have some quality depth on the defensive line," he said. "We have some young, talented players up front in Jace Sayler, Nick Myers and Artie Steinmetz. Those guys have improved tremendously since last season and their knowledge of our defensive system is much, much better."

It won't be easy to replace the emotional leadership and play of outside linebacker (WILL) Ike Reese, who led the Spartans in tackles in both 1996 and '97.

"The key player we have to replace on defense is Ike Reese," Saban said. "I know we can replace Ike Reese, the linebacker, but it's going to be very difficult to replace Ike Reese, the leader. He was a special player because he had the ability to affect all of the other players on the field. Ike raised everybody's quality of play."

Tops on the list of returnees at linebacker are Mike Austin (6-3, 237, Jr.) and Courtney Ledyard (6-3, 242, Sr.).

Austin heads into his second season as the starter at middle linebacker. Austin started nine games last year and ranked fourth on the team in tackles with 76 (41-35) in '97, including seven for losses (12 yards).

Ledyard heads into his third year as a starter on the defensive unit - his second season at outside linebacker (SAM). He recorded 60 tackles (36-24) in '97, including nine behind the line (17 yards).

It will be awfully difficult to keep T.J. Turner (6-2, 240, So.) out of the starting lineup at linebacker. He will get first crack at replacing Reese at the WILL position.

"Mike Austin and Courtney Ledyard are two battle-tested linebackers," Saban said.

"T.J. Turner has the ability to be an impact player at linebacker. T.J. is an instinctive guy with good power and punch. He demonstrated an ability to make plays on special teams last year."

Next in terms of experience at linebacker are Dwayne Hawkins (6-3, 248, R-Jr.), Sean Banks (6-2, 215, Jr.) and Shawn Wright (6-2, 227, Jr.).

Experience is abundant in the secondary where four players with starting experience return, including left cornerback Amp Campbell (6-0, 186, Sr.), strong safeties Lemar Marshall (6-2, 211, Sr.) and Aric Morris (5-11, 209, Jr.) plus free safety Sorie Kanu (5-11, 192, Sr.). The Spartan defensive backfield is recognized as the nation's No. 10-ranked unit according to The Sporting News.

Campbell, a second-team All-Big Ten pick in '97, led the Spartans with five interceptions and stood second on the team in pass break-ups with 15.

Marshall started the last four games of the '97 campaign at strong safety and finished third on the team with 79 tackles (46-33). Morris, who started the first eight games at strong safety, provided 72 stops, including eight for losses (23).

Kanu, who has started 29 consecutive games at free safety, led the secondary and ranked second on the team in tackles last season with 108 (70-38). He played particularly well down the stretch, recording double figures in tackles in each of the last seven games.

"We have a veteran group returning in the secondary," Saban said. "We have two of the best players in the Big Ten at their respective positions, in Amp Campbell at cornerback and Sorie Kanu at free safety. Both Aric Morris and Lemar Marshall have played a lot of winning football here."

The only vacancy to be filled in the secondary is at right cornerback, following the loss of three-year starter Ray Hill.

Renaldo Hill (5-11, 173, So.) earned the right to keep that position in the family with an outstanding spring performance.

Other contenders for playing time in the secondary include cornerbacks Duron Bryan (6-0, 195, R-Fr.), Richard Newsome (5-11, 189, So.) and Richard Brown (5-11, 193, So.), and safeties Scott Ernsberger (6-3, 224, Sr.), Lorenzo Guess (6-1, 185, R-Fr.) and John Marynowski (6-0, 195, So.)

Last year, Michigan State's defensive unit ranked among the NCAA leaders in rushing defense (No. 24 at 115.4 yards per game), passing defense (No. 16 with 103.9 rating), total defense (No. 13 at 301.1) and scoring defense (No. 14 at 16.9 points).

"We want to become more consistent on the defensive side of the football," Saban said. "Last year, we ranked among the national leaders in nearly every stat category, but now it's time to take the next step.

"We were dominating at times last season but at other times, we gave up easy scores. Our defensive breakdowns were caused by mental errors and missed assignments. We simply must become a more disciplined team.

"Another priority this fall will be to create more turnovers and hopefully, we can do that by doing more things to affect the quarterback. When given a favorable down-and-distance on defense, we have to make things happen."

Special Teams Scouting Report
The Spartans lose four-year placekicker Chris Gardner, who finished his career ranked among the school's all-time leaders in scoring (second at 281 points), field goals (second at 52 made) and extra points (third at 125 made).

But back in the fold is Paul Edinger (5-10, 188, Jr.), who averaged 39.2 yards on 54 punts last year. Edinger also handled the placekicking duties over the final three games of the 1997 season. He hit three-of-five field-goal attempts in '97, including a career-long 43-yarder vs. Washington in the Aloha Bowl.

"Chris Gardner had a good career," Saban said. "Paul Edinger was recruited here as a placekicker but he's been our punter the last two years out of necessity. He got some game experience late last year and we feel good about his potential. Paul has more range but he needs to develop consistency as a field-goal kicker."

The punting job remains up for grabs with David Schaefer (5-10, 176, R-Fr.) holding a slight edge over Edinger.

"Paul is certainly a capable punter," Saban said, "but I would prefer for him to devote his full-time attention to placekicking. David Schaefer handled most of the punting during the spring and we recruited the best punter in the Midwest."

Michigan State's return game features two of the Big Ten's best punt returners in Sedrick Irvin, who ranked second in the league in 1997 with his 13.6-yard average, and Gari Scott, who finished fourth in the conference thanks to his 10.7-yard average.

As a team, Michigan State ranked second in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (22.6 avg.) and third in punt returns (12.0 avg.). The Spartans finished last in the league in net punting (33.3 avg.) as the result of three blocked punts.

"We have quite a few players back from our special teams so our consistency should improve," Saban said. "We ended up fourth overall in the Big Ten in terms of special teams play despite finishing last in net punting.

"We had good special teams last year but we had some poor plays that cost us dramatically. Blocked field goals impacted the outcome of two games (Northwestern and Purdue) and a blocked punt took us out of the Ohio State game."

The 1998 Schedule
Michigan State's 1998 opponents had a combined winning percentage of .535 (77-67) last season. The Spartans face seven teams that played in bowl games to close out the '97 season, including Colorado State (Holiday), Oregon (Las Vegas), Notre Dame (Independence), Michigan (Rose), Ohio State (Sugar), Purdue (Alamo) and Penn State (Citrus).

The Spartans will play 12 regular-season games for the first time in school history. For only the second time in the history of Spartan Stadium, Michigan State's schedule features seven home games in '98. The Spartans also had seven home dates in 1946.

Michigan State opens the '98 campaign against Colorado State Aug. 29 in Spartan Stadium in the second annual Black Coaches Association Football Classic. The Spartans' non-conference home slate also features Notre Dame (Sept. 12) and Central Michigan (Oct. 3). Michigan State's home agenda also includes Big Ten rivals Indiana (Oct. 10), Northwestern (Oct. 31), Purdue (Nov. 14) and Illinois (Nov. 21).

The Spartans' away schedule includes a trip to Oregon (Sept. 5). Michigan State's Big Ten road schedule calls for stops at Michigan (Sept. 26), Minnesota (Oct. 24), Ohio State (Nov. 7) and Penn State (Nov. 28).

"We have a very challenging schedule, with seven bowl teams from last year," Saban said. "All seven of those teams have quite a few quality players returning.

"The addition of the Colorado State game will be important in the development of a young football team. Our early-season schedule is very demanding with Colorado State, Oregon, Notre Dame and Michigan, but a home game to start the season should be beneficial.

"We're looking forward to the upcoming season, and we hope the maturity level of this team will help us confront the challenges ahead."

Coaching Staff Changes
There are four new additions to Michigan State's full-time coaching staff for 1998, including defensive coordinator Chris Cosh, offensive line coach Golden Pat Ruel, linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Bill Sheridan and tight ends and special teams coach Mike Cummings.

Cosh served as Maryland's linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator in 1997. The 37-year-old Cosh spent five seasons at Illinois (1992-96) where he coached inside linebackers under Lou Tepper and acted as the Fighting Illini's defensive coordinator in '96. His full-time coaching credits also include stops at Minnesota (defensive line coach, 1991), UNLV (inside linebackers coach, 1990), Southeast Missouri State (defensive coordinator, 1989), Wisconsin-Oshkosh (defensive coordinator, 1985-88). Cosh played linebacker for Coach Bill Dooley at Virginia Tech (1983 graduate).

The 47-year-old Ruel comes to Michigan State following a nine-year stint as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach under Glen Mason at Kansas (1988-96). A 23-year veteran in the collegiate coaching ranks, Ruel has served on the staffs at Northern Illinois (1985-87), Texas A&M (1982-84), Washington State (1979-81), Arkansas (1977-78) and Miami-Fla. (1974-76). He earned two letters as an offensive guard for the Hurricanes (1972 graduate).

Sheridan, a Detroit native, spent the last six seasons at the U.S. Military Academy (1992-97) where he coached linebackers and defensive backs. Prior to his appointment at West Point, the 39-year-old Sheridan coached at Cincinnati (inside linebackers coach, 1989-91) and Maine (outside linebackers coach, 1987-88). He won four letters as a linebacker at Grand Valley State College (1982 graduate) in Allendale, Mich.

Cummings, 36, served as Central Michigan's offensive line coach the past six seasons (1992-97). He previously spent two years each as offensive line coach at Millersville (Pa.) University (1990-91) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1986-87) in Troy, N.Y. Cummings earned three letters as an offensive lineman at the University of Buffalo (1984 graduate).

"We feel fortunate to be able to attract four quality coaches to Michigan State," Saban said. "These coaches have brought new ideas and enthusiasm to the program. Spring practice was exciting because there was a lot of new information shared.

"It has not been a difficult transition because we didn't change systems on either side of the football. The players have adjusted well to the new coaches and their personalities."

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