Oct. 25, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Every play may be designed to score a touchdown if executed perfectly, but one split-second of indecision can cause it to break down almost before it gets started.
Now consider the multiplying effect of two, three or more mental missteps at the same time and it's easy to understand why Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten has trouble sleeping.
Such mistakes are minimized by endless repetition, continuity and experience, which have been eroded away from the Spartan O-line by injuries.
Michigan State confronted Michigan last Saturday with its sixth different combination of linemen in eight games as red-shirt freshman Donavon Clark, a prototypical guard, made his first career start at left tackle in place of the injured Dan France.
Barring any late changes, France is expected to start at Wisconsin this Saturday along with Blake Treadwell at left guard, Jack Allen at center, Chris McDonald at right guard and Skyler Burkland at right tackle.
That's the same combination that opened the game at Indiana four weeks ago, but marks the fourth consecutive time Staten has reconfigured his starting front going into a game.
While winning nine of their last 11 games last season, the Spartans had the same starting front five 10 times, and the same blockers in 64 of 66 possible starting positions, including tight ends.
The offensive line that started this season was together for only the first two games and the same starters have been in their same place for just 36 of 48 starts.
Take into account the replacements and position-switches Staten has put into effect after the games have started, and terms like "chaos theory" start coming to mind.
"You don't sleep a whole lot, you try to figure out ways, you try to get a guy to understand by comparing it to something else," Staten said. "You pull out all of your tricks of your teaching and coaching and these guys have to watch a huge amount of film (and) they have to do stuff on their own with each other."
McDonald, a senior who will start his 26th consecutive game and 35th overall, has orchestrated the skull sessions, but getting a line perfectly choreographed with experienced players is a painstaking task. That MSU is averaging just 1.8 sacks allowed in Big Ten play is somewhat remarkable.
"It's a testament to these younger guys stepping up when they're asked to step up," Staten said. "We're pretty far down the line. You look at last week and Chris McDonald was the only guy in the lineup who played a year ago.
"It's just sustaining, it's experience, it's continuing and when the whistle blows you're still on the guy you're supposed to be blocking. For the most part, across the board, from left tackle to right tackle they did an outstanding job (against Michigan). The guys move their feet well, they're athletic and they've been able to (pass) protect."
While offensive production is down significantly from last season, it's hardly fair to compare this offensive unit to one that had consistent line play, a three-year starter at quarterback (Kirk Cousins), an explosive running back tandem (Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker) and experienced playmakers at receiver (B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and tight end Brian Linthicum).
Nevertheless, Staten said, "We'll continue to strive forward. There's no excuses, no explanations. That's the way you have to play this game. That's a true testament to what you are as a person, and that's what you try to teach these young guys. Hey, it's not the way you want it right now, but what are you going to do about it?"
Running a play with precision affords a lineman with no time to think about what he's supposed to do.
"We're trying to minimize those (split-second indecisions)," Staten said. "We're trying to be a broad-based offense, but for the guys up front it needs to be consistent and that's what we're trying to give them.
"If a defensive guy on the backside is out of place, it might affect them dramatically, but somebody else still might make a play. It seems like up front, you have to have a hat (blocker) for everybody, and if you don't, that guy's going to show up in the hole and it's up to the running back to make him miss."
Although Bell is closing on his first 1,000-yard season, he's had to change his approach to carrying the ball depending on who's blocking for him.
"It's definitely different having to get used to (various) guys, but we've got promising guys up front," Bell said. "You've got to know certain things different linemen are good at. You have to know what their specialty is and what they're not so good at. In pass protection you have to know who you need to help out and who you don't.
"There's a lot that goes into it, but we're going to keep working on it and getting better in practice."