Dec. 29, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
LOS ANGELES - Connor Kruse is so looking forward to his first catch as a Michigan State Spartan.
Yes, the 320-pound red-shirt junior who wears No. 54 has no doubts about his ability run a pass route, and why should he? He has already played seven of 11 positions on offense in games this season and a Connor Cook-to-Connor Kruse connection has a pleasing symmetry to it.
"I'm just here to help the team as much as possible and if that means jumping in anywhere, I'm glad to do it," the former walk-on said Sunday morning during Rose Bowl Media at The L.A. Downtown Hotel. "If they want to put me at receiver, I'd be super-happy."
Barring a pass thrown in Kruse's direction - after checking in as an eligible receiver - against Stanford in the Rose Bowl, he'll be content being MSU's ultimate utility man.
So far this season, Kruse has played center, left and right guard, both tackle spots and tight end on either side.
Like Michigan State's other glue players who toil in relative obscurity or do the thankless jobs that rarely get them noticed, Kruse is extremely comfortable with his role - or, more correctly, roles - assigned to him by offensive line coach Mark Staten.
"At the beginning of the season, Coach Staten asked me if I could play guard and learn tackle, too, and I said sure," Kruse said. "Then, there were some injuries at the beginning of camp and he said can I play center? And I said yup, it doesn't matter to me, I can do it. He knew I was smart enough to understand every position. The only question there was, could I execute at every position? I like to think I can.
"Then we started putting in the `hogs package,' which is where I go in at tight end and is a lot of fun, I can tell you that. If I could get in the backfield for a play (as a fullback) and run straight downhill at somebody and hit `em, that would be a dream-come-true. I've never been in the backfield my whole life, so being back there would be a blast."
Switching sides is problematic for some linemen, but not Kruse who doesn't profess to be ambidextrous but is left-handed when it comes to writing and a righty, for example, when swinging a golf club.
"It might be the stance thing for guys who can't do it, but it's not that hard for me because in my head I just flip it," Kruse said. "If the right tackle does it this way, the left tackle just does the opposite.
"I'm a mix of everything."
The value of Kruse's unselfish nature can't be overstated.
"Connor's been awesome," Staten said. "He's a hard-working guy and when he hits you, you know you've been hit. I constantly ask him, `Am I giving you too much?' And he always says , `No, I want to help.' To be able to perform like that at a high level and do it competitively takes a special person."
It's little wonder that Marcus Rush is affectionately known as "the other defensive end" despite his catchy, position-appropriate name.
"Yeah, I get that a little bit," the fourth-year junior said.
The low-keyed Rush is the polar opposite of redshirt sophomore Shilique Calhoun, a camera-friendly human dynamo who's capable of lighting up a room with his smile. And despite starting every game in 2011 and '12, Rush was routinely overshadowed by the flashy William Gholston before he left a year early for the NFL.
"We've got big-time players here," Rush said. "Last year we had Will and this year we've got Shilique. Shilique's playing really well and that's great because a big part of our defense is guys making plays, and as long as we're doing that I'm happy because we're winning."
Calhoun, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, burst onto the scene earlier this season with a penchant for scoring touchdowns off turnovers - two with fumble returns and one with an interception. However, Rush, who is slated to start for the 40th time in 41 career games, is no slouch.
He has 27 tackles and 17 solo stops to Calhoun's 36 and 16. Calhoun has 14 tackles-for-loss to Rush's 7.5, but Rush has three pass-breakups to none for Calhoun. Rush has forced one fumble and has one recovery and Calhoun has forced two and recovered a team-high four. Rush has five sacks for minus-27 yards while Calhoun has 7.5 for minus-45.
Perception often has a lot to do with personality, and Rush is fine with that.
"Shilique likes the cameras and the media a little bit more than I do," he said. "The biggest thing is that as long as I'm playing the way I expect myself to be playing, and the coaches are happy with the way I'm playing, I'm happy. In practice, we're always competing against each other and that just pushes us to work harder.
"I'm not at all envious of the attention he gets. It's not important to me. It's still just football and I played football my entire life without the media. That's fine by me."
As a first-year starter at fullback, sophomore Trevon Pendleton is hardly a household name because his primary job is to clear tacklers out of tailback Jeremy Langford's path. And although he has enjoyed some fleeting moments in the limelight - his first career reception resulted in a 12-yard touchdown against Youngstown State - there's no question what his most gratifying contribution to Michigan State's cause has been so far.
"The block I threw at the end of the game against Michigan to spring Jeremy for the long (40-yard) touchdown to seal the game," said Pendleton, who also had a 49-yard reception on MSU's first play against the Wolverines. "It was pretty nice to catch the pass against Michigan, too, but the block is definitely my most satisfying moment."
Pendleton's pride isn't dependent on the more glamorous aspects of the game.
"My role on the team is to just kind of clean up and help where I can," he said. "I don't have a glory role or anything like that, but I just go about my business, keep my nose to the grindstone and do whatever I can to help the team win. I know a lot of what I do goes unnoticed, but that part doesn't bother me. It doesn't go unnoticed by some people.
"I know the other guys respect what I do and the coaches give me all the recognition I need, really. More importantly, just that feeling of celebrating a win with the guys in the locker room after we got the job done is all I need."
One of the biggest misgivings associated with MSU going into season was it didn't have anyone who could replace second-team All-Big Ten tight end Dion Sims. Without much fanfare, however, red-shirt freshman Josiah Price, junior Andrew Gleichert and red-shirt freshman Jamal Lyles have more than adequately filled the void.
Sims was third on the team in receiving with 36 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns in his final season as a Spartan. Price, a redshirt freshman with 16 catches for 201 yards and four touchdowns, Gleichert (five, 32 and one) and Lyles (four, 53) have combined for 25 receptions, 286 yards and five TDs with more work to do against the Cardinal. Six-foot-7, 299-pound Michael Dennis has been featured as a blocking tight end and sophomore Paul Lang is also in the mix.
"A lot of people were looking for one person to take over, but we kind of thought we'd do it by committee all along because none of us were extremely standout prospects like Dion was," Price said. "But I think we're very productive in the system we use. We use me, Michael Dennis and Andrew Gleichert very well and (tight ends coach Jim) Bollman is great getting us on the field when he needs our strengths.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised, but going into the season I couldn't imagine having the season I'm having. It's not like they're going to set a game plan for the tight end to have a big game, but I'm thankful I've been able to make some big plays. It's been a fun year."
Linebacker Ed Davis' season went from quietly good to good and loud in the span of the past few games. The third-year sophomore had career-highs for tackles, with four, and stops behind the line, with 2.5 (all while sacking the quarterback), in the win against Michigan. He had three tackles in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State, including a 5-yard sack.
Working behind the scenes is all right for now, but Davis is "looking forward" to standing out even more, which could happen against Stanford.
"I'm trying my best and I know if I keep working my talent will show up," Davis said. "Everybody knows what I can do. It's been rewarding for me to step up in big games and to help the seniors get to the Rose Bowl.
"We've got a lot of great players, so I know my time is coming. In practice, I do it all the time."
Sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes has been performing at a consistently high level all season long, but senior counterpart Darqueze Dennard has been grabbing most of the headlines by winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back and earning unanimous All-America honors.
Waynes, who has two interceptions to Dennard's four and 12 fewer tackles with 47, doesn't bemoan his lack of attention.
"No, I don't feel overshadowed," Waynes said. "Queze has been telling me from Day 1 that next year's my year and I'm going to be the guy. I'm always just focused on the task at hand; not what's happening on the other side. I know offenses are going to take shots at both of us."
"You would think playing with him it would drive more action my way, but lately in the past couple games, they've actually went more at him than me, which kind of surprised me. I look at this year as a learning experience and he's really helped me for the next years to come."
What Waynes doesn't get nearly enough credit for is the way he forces teams to pick their poison, instead of a path of least resistance.
"They're all doing grunt work, but some guys get more press for it, I guess," Spartan assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said of MSU's unsung performers. "You can't play with three guys; it takes 11 of them. Darqueze needs that other corner to be good because if that other corner stinks, then no balls are coming his way at all. If that other corner's good, he's going to get at least some thrown his way. You aren't a good defense unless there are no weak spots.
"You know, a team is made up of a bunch of characters, and we certainly have a bunch of characters who all have different personalities. It wouldn't be any fun if they were all the same and we had a bunch of robots walking around."