By Ashley Dunkak
The way the Michigan State defense played in 2012, the end result for the Spartans could have been much better than 7-6. An unfathomable 65 drops by wide receivers stymied the offense, but the team still finished the season on a positive note, rallying from a 13-0 deficit and winning their bowl game. This season, Michigan State has a rare second chance with a defense that ranked fourth in the nation in 2012. If the Spartans offense can pull it together, it could be an impressive season.
Clearly, the strength of the Spartans is defense. The unit ranked eighth best nationally in defending the run and ninth best at defending the pass. Not only does Michigan State bring back almost all the players who did so well last season, nine or 10 of the defense’s starting 11 are juniors or seniors, according to the most recently released depth chart. Six or seven are seniors. Defensively, the Spartans have the kind of experience and depth of which coaches dream.
With Max Bullough firmly set as the middle linebacker, Denicos Allen on the weak side and Taiwan Jones on the strong side, the Spartans have nine years of experience across those positions. Tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds are sixth- and fifth-year seniors, respectively. If the defense can avoid injuries, it should be another impressive season, and the Spartans should again have a chance to win most of their games.
All that matters little, of course, if Michigan State cannot score more points than the other team. Wide receivers were the bane of the offense in 2012 with those notorious 65 drops. In that respect, it would be hard for the unit to be worse this season. The stigma of the drops aside, wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel said the group was doing well and had developed a solid understanding of the offense.
“Learning the offense is not going to be easy when you’re a pro-style offense,” Samuel said. “We throw a lot at them. Now, after having a summer to be with the quarterbacks and understand the rhythm, you see it, you see the confidence. This group lost confidence, but we’re not worried about the offense anymore, we’re not learning the offense.”
Quarterback Justin Maxwell started every game of the season, but Connor Cook replaced him in the bowl game. Cook did not look spectacular by any means, but he looked better than Maxwell. Now Maxwell has another shot, having won the job again in 2013. Whether he will hold it is uncertain. As recently as last Monday, head coach Mark Dantonio said none of the four quarterbacks had separated himself from the others.
“I want to see everyone getting reps with the ones and the twos to try and make it equal,” Dantonio said. “We have four major college quarterbacks. They can all throw it. They all have size and ability.”
The passing game takes on even more importance this season as the Spartans will not have running back Le’Veon Bell to rely on. New starter Jeremy Langford, a junior, has only nine carries for 23 yards in his career as a Spartan. Redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, of course, has not yet had any game experience at Michigan State.
What might be most key to both the passing and running games, though, is the health of the offensive line. Last year the line – and thus the offense – struggled when both tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Johnson were lost for the season to injuries. The retirement this summer of 6-foot-7, 315-pound tackle Skyler Burkland due to a plethora of injuries already limits the depth of the line, and Fonoti is dealing with a minor injury right now that will keep him from playing too much Saturday. A little further back on the depth chart, Jack Allen will miss the opener with an unspecified lower body injury. On the plus side, the starters on the line have some years of repetitions in the system. Guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France are both fifth-year seniors, and center Travis Jackson is a junior.
If the offense cannot move the ball, the Spartans still have their All-Big 10 punter Mike Sadler to fall back on. With Sadler able to make life easier for the Michigan State and vastly more difficult for opposing offenses, the Spartans should have a decent season whether the offense hits its stride or not. If the offense can compete, Michigan State might be able to improve a couple of games from last year’s record, when the Spartans lost five games by a combined total of 13 points.