Last year Michigan State’s second year coach, Mark Dantonio, claimed that his goal was to contend for a Big Ten Championship. Though no one thought it was going to happen, the Spartans had a shot at the title going into the last week but lost the showdown to Penn State on the road. This year at the Big Ten media day Mark Dantonio set another high goal, to win the Big Ten title.
Last year’s team rested on the shoulders of dynamo running back Javon Ringer who ran the ball 390 times for 1,743 yards. With him now playing in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans, the Spartans biggest task will be to replace him. They will attempt that by using a running back by committee. The returning back with the most yards last year is the small, quick Andre Anderson who ran for 116 total yards. The two backs with the most potential are incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper. Expect those two to spit most of the carries down the stretch.
The only other glaring hole the Spartans had to fill is at quarterback where two and a half year starter Brian Hoyer vacated his position for the NFL. Currently there is a battle for this spot in camp between two red shirt sophomores, Kirk Cousins and Oklahoma transfer and former Lowell standout, Keith Nichol. Both will provide more big play potential than Hoyer, but the experience will be lacking. Nichol is the more highly touted of the two and possesses more of a running threat but Cousins is very athletic as well, though he relies more on his game management skills. Expect the battle to go into the season with the two splitting time in the opening games. Either one will be an upgrade.
The whole wide receiving corps, including tight ends, returns and possess some big play ability. Junior Mark Dell has the most pro potential and is primed for a breakout season. Former walk-on Blair White lead the team in receiving yards last year and was the go to guy in clutch moments, and should have a solid senior year. Others like speedster Keshawn Martin, deep ball threat BJ Cunningham, and young Fred Smith will contribute to this dangerous receiving core. At tight end, Charlie Gant returns and will start but expect Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum to see a lot of playing time.
The line returns three of five starts but replaces the whole right side. Rocco Cironi will keep his left tackle position locked down as well as Joel Foreman at left guard and Joel Nitchman at center. Brendon Moss should take over the right guard spot nicely and J’Michael Deane will fill in at right tackle.
The defensive side of the ball returns 9 of 11 starters and they will replace the two departures with guys who have experience. The team’s star power is on the defense with middle linebacker Greg Jones who is the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Flanking him at an outside backer spot will be two year starter Eric Gordon. He is a sure tackler who must be accounted for in the pass rush and the running game. On the other side Brandon Denson will start and will be most effective against the pass as he is a converted running back with speed. Expect stud true freshman Chris Norman to see a lot of playing time as well.
On the defensive line the question will be who can produce on the opposite end as stud pass rusher Trevor Anderson who is honorable mention all Big Ten will wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Expect Colin Neely to step up and split time with Tyler Hoover. In the middle Oren Wilson will hold down his nose tackle spot and be more than serviceable. His counterpart at nose guard will be a rotation of Kevin Picklemen and Jerel Worthy. Those two together should help create an undersized but very active frontline for the Spartans.
The secondary will also be one of the best in the Big Ten with slew of very good borderline great cornerbacks in Chris L. Rucker, Jeremy Ware, Ashton Henderson, Ross Weaver and Johnny Adams. Expect Rucker and Weaver to start at the corner spots. At Safety they lose the leader of last year’s defense Otis Wiley and will be the hardest person to replace this year. They have some experience returning back there but no one with the big play potential of Wiley. Expect a rotation of Kendall Davis-Clark, Danny Fortener, Marcus Hyde, Brynden Trawick, and Rod Jenrette. Davis-Clark and Fortner will more than likely start with the others rotating in to make a very good secondary.
The special teams are headed by All American kicker Brett Swenson who is up for the Lou Groza award for the best place kicker in the nation. The punting duties will belong to Aaron Bates who performed very well last year. The kick returning is up for grabs right now with the possibilities of Mark Dell, Keshawn Martin, Jeremy Ware, and running back Glenn Winston who succeeded at the spot last year. Punt returning will likely belong to Mark Dell or Keshawn Martin.
Is Mark Dantonio’s goal too high? I would say no. They do not have preseason favorite Ohio State on their schedule and play Penn State at home the last week of the season. That game could be for Michigan State’s first Big Ten title since the 80’s.