Aug. 12, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. ─ Heading into preseason camp, the picture presented of Michigan State's offense was so blurry it caused double-vision and dizziness.
Instead of one coordinator, there are two. The quarterback competition, which appeared to be stabilized for the foreseeable future when Andrew Maxwell was named the starter as a junior in 2012, was re-opened to all bona fide challengers. A committee, of all things, was put in place to determine who will run with the ball.
Pass receivers? Several.
Pass catchers? TBA.
One week of practice and Saturday's first intra-squad scrimmage later, the outlook for what this offense will be capable of doing on game day is coming into focus, according to new co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman.
"We want to be more consistent," he said after Monday's morning workout. "What's new about that? If you're really good on offense, you don't make a lot of mistakes. Eliminating all those self-inflicted mistakes that you make is the first thing."
Turnovers and penalties where the most troublesome aspect of the scrimmage, which was won by the defense, 28-22, under a modified scoring system that rewards certain types of plays and performance.
Nevertheless, Bollman envisions an offense with a big-play capability that was diminished dramatically last season from previous years.
"You need to try to have some explosive plays because it's hard to go down the field at 4 yards a crack," he said. "You have to be almost faultless. If you look at any drive in major-college football, there's not going to be a whole bunch of 12- and 13-play kind of deals. Somewhere in there, there's going to be a big gain.
"So we want to develop those kinds of things and I think there's some guys who've been doing that. We've had a lot of big plays out of our receivers in camp, and that's been good to see."
Maxwell would have been a much better quarterback, from a statistical standpoint at the very least, had the drops made by receivers last season been catches. He's gotten a lift from the way they've been catching the ball in camp.
"They did really well (on Saturday)," Maxwell said. "I don't know the exact number, but we might have had two drops and we threw 50-plus, or 60 passes. That's encouraging. They're making strides. That's something we did take away from the scrimmage.
"We knew that those were the kind of players we have on the outside. It just helps your confidence as a quarterback knowing that if you go through the reads, guys are going to be there, and if you get the ball out there, they're going to make the play for you."
Maxwell completed 13 of 21 passes for 171 yards and a 19-yard touchdown pass to wideout Macgarrett Kings Jr. Connor Cook, who's outstanding performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl caused head coach Mark Dantonio to return the quarterback race back to the starting line, completed 13 of 18 for 133 yards.
Tyler O'Connor connected on 7 of 9 for 74 yards and a pair of touchdowns to wideout Bennie Fowler. True freshman Damion Terry went 4-for-7 for 101 yards and a TD. Together, the four quarterbacks completed 37 of 55 for 479 yards and four scores.
"The sky's the limit for our offense right now," Cook said. "The receivers especially have been coming out and making plays catching the ball. There've been very, very few drops. If you put it out there, they're making grabs. We didn't see that a whole lot in the spring and from what we've seen so far this past week, I'm excited."
O'Connor, a red-shirt freshman, came to MSU with a reputation for having a strong arm and being elusive, but experience, as much as anything, has kept him in the conversation.
"The numbers and stats were good, but feeling comfortable, compared to last year, is night and day compared to where I was," O'Connor said. "I've definitely had some setbacks, as everyone has. I've had a couple days that ate at me until the next time we got out there, but how comfortable I feel amongst the other guys, their trust in me and my command in the huddle is much-improved from where it was."
Although Riley Bullough, a converted red-shirt freshman linebacker, was the No. 1 tailback when camp started, Dantonio made it clear the seven-to-eight members of the running-backs corps will establish the pecking order with their performances.
Jeremy Langford, a fourth-year junior who's always known for his blazing speed, is trying to set himself apart by being more physical. He had eight carries for 31 yards and a touchdown in the scrimmage.
"Last spring I didn't break as many tackles, but that's what you've got to do sometimes," Langford said. "It's not always blocked up the way you want it to be and you've got to make the play by breaking tackles."
Bollman has given Langford a thumbs-up, so far.
"Let's not go with just the scrimmage," Bollman said. "Let's say all through camp he's been running very well, he's been running very hard and he's been doing the kind of things we need a guy in his position to do to be a contributor. He's been doing very well."
Offensively, Bollman sees the potential for being able to cover a lot of ground in a hurry and Maxwell has already reaped the benefits from being in more advantageous down-and-distance situations.
"Our offensive line has been doing a great job of protecting and our running backs have been running hard. They're new and inexperienced, but they're looking very good," Maxwell said. "Sometimes when we would lose scrimmages in the past, it's that we couldn't run the ball, we didn't throw very effectively and we just kind of got stuffed and sputtered through it.
"But you look back at Saturday, and we were getting chunk plays. It seemed like on every series there's a big run, a catch-and-run, and it's consistently chipping away at the defense. When you can be consistent with our effectiveness on first down with 5- and 6-yard runs, or a catch-and-advance by a receiver who falls forward another 5 yards, then you're not scrambling to make a big play on third down.
"If you can keep your self in third-and-manageable, you're going to open yourself up for big plays down the field, and hopefully make them when they present themselves."
The transition to having combo coordinators has also been smooth. Bollman, an offensive line coach by trade and Dave Warner, the former quarterbacks coach who is overseeing the backfield, have worked out a viable system.
"I think it's worked out really well for us because on the field, Coach Warner's the one calling the plays from the sideline," Maxwell said. "He's the one who's doing a lot of the upfront coaching while Coach Bollman is kind of back talking with the line and the tight ends.
"For me, it hasn't been a whole lot different because a lot of my interactions have always been with the coordinator calling plays and the quarterback coach. But like today, I had a question about a blocking scheme, and (Bollman's) the guy I went to for that."