Over the last 10 years, it can be debated that the Michigan State Spartans have been the most dominant team in all of football & basketball – one of the few programs that has had deep runs in both the NCAA Tournament (basketball) & in college football’s bowl system. Mark Dantonio has completely changed the vibe & attitude of the Spartans’ football program around, allowing the team to attract more of the 5-star recruits to East Lansing as opposed to just the 2 & 3 star recruits.
The thing that has made Dantonio a great coach & motivator, however, is that he has taken those lower-level recruits coming out of high school and made them into big time college players who have contributed huge to the development and success of the program.
This is going to be an interesting season for the Spartans, who are going to have a real fight in the Big Ten Eastern Division with an improved Michigan Wolverines squad & an Ohio State team that is always formidable. Where the Spartans are strong, however, is that they have leadership at the top, which starts with probable starter Tyler O’Connor.
O’Connor is a senior who has been a backup for the last three seasons in East Lansing to quite possibly the best quarterback in the school’s history in terms of wins and offensive output – Connor Cook. O’Connor does have some big game experience though – he started in the Ohio State game last year & in a big road game in Columbus, kept the ship steady, going 7-12 for 89 yards and a touchdown and kept the Buckeye defense off balance just enough to pound the team with the run again & again, headed to the victory and help launch MSU into the Big Ten championship game, which of course, led them to their first appearance in the college football playoff.
Is O’Connor going to be a guy that is going to project to the NFL this season? Probably not. But for this team & this season, he has to be able to guide the ship, get first downs and keep the chains moving. If the Spartans are looking to spice things up a bit, 4th year junior Damian Terry is a good change of pace guy, especially running the football. He had only a small bit of time in game last year – mostly during the Ohio State game, but his passing was not impressive at all, as he only went 2-7 for 15 yards. However, don’t be surprised to see him in some QB sneak or spread/wildcat formations as he has shown he can be an effective runner coming out of the backfield. Between O’Connor having good speed & Terry having slightly better speed overall, the Spartans will be able to bring a dynamic from the QB position that Connor Cook couldn’t bring at all – a QB that can scramble out of situations and possibly make plays downfield.
In order to have an effective passing game, the running game has to be solid & Michigan State looks to have a strong running game again this year with sophomore L.J. Scott leading the way, along with splitting a bit of time with Gerald Holmes & Madre London. All three of those RBs ran for over 500 yards last year and Scott was a complete beast during the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa, where he ran for 238 yards in a game where the team had to grind out yards again & again, constantly needing first downs to keep Iowa’s offense off the field.
Of course, football is a trickle down effect, so if the running game is going to be strong, the offensive line has to come together, and the team has to replace 2016 NFL Draft Top-5 pick Jack Conklin, along with center Jack Allen & left guard Donavon Clark. Guard/Center Bryan Allen is a preseason All-Big Ten selection, but there should be some fun battles coming up for the top positions & may need some time to come together before their first big game in Week 3 against Notre Dame in South Bend against a defense that will look to really come after MSU’s rebuilt offense. Sorry, we just don’t count Furman as an opponent to take even remotely seriously.
At the wide receiver position, R.J. Shelton is going to be looked at to be the #1 wide receiver, and he is definitely ready for it. He has been playing ever since he was a freshman (40 games), and he had 4 touchdowns and 503 yards last season, for third on the team. After Shelton, it is going to be a real fight for playing time. MSU has a ton of freshmen coming in that could make some noise, especially if Darrell Stewart Jr., Brandon Sowards & Davis Lewandownski can come in and contribute early. Sophomores Robert Aiello & Austin Wolfe are going to need to prove their worth in the passing offense, but the receiver who could be someone to watch is Trey Kilgore. He has good speed, solid hands and has been in the program since committing in 2013.
On the defensive side of the ball, the team lost 5 starters but the team is still going to be loaded on that side for 2016, and could be one of the best units in all of college football. The defense is led by Riley Bullough, who led the team in tackles last season & was a big time playmaker all over the field at times. The defensive line looks strong with Malik McDowell rotating between tackle or the end position and Demetrius Cooper, who could be a sleeper for All-American honors by the end of the year.
Michigan State will be bringing back another dominant secondary that has insane speed and is incredibly physical at the snap with receivers with Montae Nicholson, Demetrious Cox and CBs Darian Hicks, Tyson Smith and Vayante Copeland.
The special teams for MSU should be solid again this year with the return of kicker Michael Geiger and punter Jake Hartbarger. R.J. Shelton is expected to be a kick returner, but with him being the #1 receiver this year, look for the Spartans to try to find another guy that can handle that responsibility.
The Spartans will have definite tests to see if they are going to be an elite squad, starting September 17 against Notre Dame and possibly against a #1-ranked Michigan squad in October, as well as Ohio State at home. This could be a year that the Spartans could surprise many in the Big Ten.