College Football Preview 2015-2016: 7. Michigan State Spartans
2014-2015 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Coach: Mark Dantonio, ninth year (75-31 overall)
Key Losses: RB Jeremy Langford, CB Trae Waynes
Heisman Hopeful: QB Connor Cook
Breakout Player: WR DeAnthony Arnett
A thrilling comeback to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl made one thing certainly clear in East Lansing; the Spartans had built a football powerhouse under Mark Dantonio. Michigan State is one of five programs in college football who have had four 11-win seasons in five years, and the Spartans' two losses a year ago were to the two teams that would eventually meet in the College Football Playoff Championship game: Oregon and Ohio State. Perhaps the truest mark of how far the Michigan State program has come is the fact the team is still widely seen as a Top 10-team despite some tough losses, including wonderful back Jeremy Langford and some great defenders. With veterans on offense ready to lead the unit, led by senior QB Connor Cook, and a defense that should be it's usual nasty self, this Spartans team appears ready to step up and take a shot at Ohio State in the tough Big Ten East, and earn a Playoff spot.
Backfield: He isn't the most tantalizing quarterback in FBS football, but there isn't any denying how good of a quarterback Connor Cook is. After winning the QB job entering the 2013 season, Cook has recorded a 24-3 record, and put together a very strong stat sheet throughout the 2014 season. Cook threw for 3,214 yards along with 24 touchdowns, while running for two more. Cook doesn't have the strongest arm but he makes up for it with his knowledge and feel for the game. He also possesses the size (6'4", 220 pounds) that makes NFL scouts drool. In fact, many see Cook as the top quarterback prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft Class, at this way early point in the cycle. If Cook can put up similar numbers, and cut down on turnovers that nagged him late in games, he is a dark horse Heisman candidate, especially if the Spartans can pull off some huge wins. Having a veteran quarterback like Cook is a major plus for Dantonio and co-offensive coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner, and it should take some pressure off the issues at running back. Langford was rarely in the conversations of elite running backs because he was never very flashy either. That helped him put together an unbelievably quiet 1,522 yard and 22 touchdown season. Not only is Langford the feature back, but Nick Hill, his backup, also graduated. Not as powerful as Langford, Hill used his speed and explosiveness to record a strong year, in which he had 622 yards, averaging near six yards per carry. To make matters even worse at the position, projected starter Delton Williams was arrested in the off season. If the junior can get his act together, he could be a dangerous weapon. Blessed with a combination of size and agility, he is always ready to break open big plays. Though if he can't get things together, sophomore Gerald Holmes might have a chance at the No. 1 back spot. Holmes had just 15 carries a year ago, but he has the upside to be a good back. Unfortunately, going from 15 carries to a workhorse won't be an easy transition, whatsoever. That could push Dantonio to turn to true freshman Larry Scott, a four-star playmaker. Scott spurned Ohio State and a number of Big Ten rivals to go to East Lansing, where he is certainly the future at the position. With the situation where it is right now, Scott's "future" may be right away. A major plus for the backfield will be having senior fullback Trevon Pendleton back. Pendleton definitely won't get the ball very much but he is a fantastic blocker and great locker room presence.
Receivers: The Spartans' receiving corps did not make it through the offseason without losses either. Tony Lippett, who developed into Michigan State's top pass catcher last season is gone after recording 65 receptions for 1,198 yards with 11 touchdowns. To make matters worse, Macgarrett Kings Jr., who was expected to play a huge role this season, was arrested along with Williams. Kings will hopefully back, as the Spartans could certainly use his big play ability. Though, even with him returning, there are other pieces that need to step up alongside him. Top on the list is junior R.J. Shelton along with senior DeAnthony Arnett. Shelton has flashed serious potential throughout hist time at MSU, but he has struggled with drops and consistency. He will hope to seriously improve on his 16 catches for 173 yards in 2014-2015. Arnett has been another player that has flashed his upside in short stints with the Spartans but has yet to put it all together. Arnett had just two receptions last season, but he could be in store for a huge senior campaign. Arnett was a pretty important pipeline find for Dantonio and staff, but he has been buried on the depth chart for years in East Lansing. Though, he has used patience and determination to stick on the roster, and things should pay off in his final year with Michigan State. Arnett has explosive speed and breakneck speed; he will be a serious thorn in the side of opposing defenses. A big spring game from Arnett showed just how good he can be. Senior Aaron Burbidge is another player who should be expected to step up in a large way. Burbidge has been productive throughout his time with Michigan State, but is also working on consistency and becoming a more reliable weapon. Burbidge had 29 receptions for 358 yards but also has drops at times and is working on becoming an impact blocker as well, which is important in an offense that does rely pretty heavily on it's ground attack. A major advantage for Dantonio and the offense is going to be the return of junior tight end Josiah Price. Price has proven to be a very great downfield target for Michigan State, with 26 catches for 374 yards and six touchdowns on top of it. Not only has he have impressive speed for his size and position, Price knows how to get into space and make plays in the red zone. With the questions at receiver, Cook should look to Price early and often in 2015, and the veteran could become an All-Big Ten performer. Depth is certainly not a strength of the position, so newcomers could find a way to see snaps. Rather unheralded prospects like Darrell Stewart, a three-star from Houston, along with Felton Davis, another three-star, could see action. Both have plenty of upside, and will add some excitement and scoring punch to the offense and passing game.
Offensive Line: With some of the losses at the skill positions, having an experienced and talented offensive line the Spartans have is a major plus. Michigan State possesses two of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten and the nation as a whole. Center Jack Allen is as good as you can at the spot; he earned All-American honors last season after completely and utterly dominating last season. Allen has the size and mobility to an elite center and he certainly proved he was throughout last season. Though, perhaps just as key as the return of Allen is the return of junior tackle Jack Conklin. Conklin earned impressive honors for his play last season, earning All-Conference honors in 2014. Conklin is a widely known offensive linemen for the NFL, because of his size and proven blocking abilities. At 6'6", 320 pounds there are few out there that can overpower Conklin and his vision and maturity are well beyond his years. Expect Michigan State to place their best true blocker at perhaps the line's most important position, left tackle. The other tackle spot is also going to be in very good hands, with junior Kodi Kieler also returning. Kieler started in big game for MSU last year and played very well, so the Spartans should feel very good about him returning to man the spot. Kieler also has pro size, also towering at 6'6", and well over 300 pounds. Both Kieler and Conklin are superb pass blockers, definitely a great thing for an offense that is looking to lean more on it's passing game than usual. The fourth returning starter to the unit is going to join Kieler on the right side of the O-Line. Donavon Clark enters his senior season as a proven run blocker who should be in store for another very strong year. The only position on the unit with any question marks surrounding it is going to be at left guard, where junior Benny McGowan is fighting a number of other candidates for the job. Senior Brandon Clemons is a versatile contributor who could battle with McGowan for the starting gig, along with redshirt freshman Chase Gianacakos. Gianacakos is an unproven commodity but he certainly has all the tools to be very, very good. He already has excellent size, after bulking big time during his redshirt year. Though, the Spartans will likely stick with either McGowan or Clemons, who are slightly more experienced and have been in the system. Another young piece that could see serious action this year is going to be Detroit product Kyona Stallworth. Stallworth is a consensus four-star recruit hailing from Martin Luther King High in Detroit. Stallworth is more natural at tackle, but he has the versatility to contribute anywhere and provides helpful depth.
coaches, when defensive end Shilique Calhoun announced he would return to campus for what will be his senior, and final season with the Spartans. Calhoun is among the most imposing pass rushers in the entire nation, and he spurned what might have been a first or second round draft selection. Few players of Calhoun's size (6'5", 250 pounds) move with his fluidity and smooth speed. Calhoun is constantly making noise in opponent's backfields, with 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks a year ago. Though, he has an even higher ceiling than that, and should be even better this season, even constantly facing double teams and much more protection schemes. Having an intimidating presence like Calhoun constantly forcing team's to focus on him helps everybody else on the unit. Though, Calhoun's stealthy sidekick, Marcus Rush (7.5 sacks in 2014-2015) graduated. Redshirt freshman Montez Sweat has the potential to take over for Rush. Sweat is gifted with great size and strength, btu also possesses great speed and agility. He will have to continue to bulk up and get stronger, but if he does the rest of the conference certainly has to watch out. Sophomore Demetrius Cooper looked very good in a reserve role a year ago, and should impress with more snaps while junior Evan Jones will also fight for more chances. Up the middle, Michigan State's rush defense should be as stout as anybody's in the entire conference. Senior Joel Heath is slated to return to the nose tackle spot, where he was impressive last season. Heath had 29 tackles last year and proved to be a productive pass rusher with five tackles going for loss along with 2.5 sacks. Heath has impressive athleticism for the position and he should constantly be chasing down opposing backs. Also returning to join Heath will be fellow senior Damon Knox, who should be healthy for the start of the 2015 season. Knox struggled heavily last year with back injuries and was limited to very little action. Though, when 100 percent, Knox is a proven run stopper. While those two should start the year at the tackle spots, expect big contributions from senior Lawrence Thomas along with sophomore Malik McDowell. Thomas saw a lot more action than many expected last season after Knox went down with injuries, and proved to be a reliable linemen. Thomas uses his impressive power to get after the quarterback, with three sacks last season. McDowell was a huge get for Dantonio and staff in the Class of 2014 but didn't see too much action in his true freshman year. Though, the staff will have a tough time keeping the 6'6", 285-pound young playmaker off the field because he oozes with potential and talent.
Linebackers: Great play from the linebacker corps has long been a staple of the Michigan State defense, especially at middle linebacker. Studs like Greg Jones, who was a two-time All-American, Max Bullough and just last year, Taiwan Jones, have passed through the halls of campus and made a living making stops on Saturdays. The next in line? Senior Darien Harris is sure to take over the position, after making a move from the edge. Harris has impressive versatility and athleticism and he can handle the important responsibilities that come with the position. Harris had 48 tackles a year ago, with 3.5 for a loss. Those numbers should all take a crazy leap this season with the improved role, where he will be asked by new defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel (who replace Pat Narduzzi, who left for the head coach job at Pitt) to be making plays all over the field. Expect big things also from junior Riley Bullough, the younger brother of Max Bullough. Riley has long been a player ready for a breakout and he showed loads of potential last season. Bullough had 29 tackles, and proved to be a very strong pass rusher, with 3.5 sacks a year ago. He doesn't have the natural instincts and tackling ability of his brother, but Riley is perhaps a better athlete and a guy who knows the system extremely well. Bullough will have to step up even more with the bad news the Spartans received about projected starter Ed Davis this week. The senior linebacker is likely to miss the whole season after suffering a knee injury. Spartans fans and coaches are hoping that the loss will be the only major injury they have to deal with this season. Davis was primed for a possible All-Conference season in his grand finale, after 58 tackles and seven sacks last season. Now, MSU is stuck with a number of scenarios, all that really end up with a young guy being thrown into the starting spot. Sophomore Shane Jones was likely the backup for Davis before the injury, and will likely be expected to take over for him now. Sophomore Chris Frey will also get his opportunities this season, after 19 tackles last season.
Secondary: Not only will the linebacker corps have to look for answers to some questions, but the secondary lost two of the best defenders in the entire land this offseason. Cornerback Trae Waynes was never seen as the most talented or exciting player, but he rarely made mistakes and he definitely proved his worth when he was selected in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings. Also gone is Kurtis Drummond, a crazy athletic safety who led the team in tackles and interceptions a season ago. Though, the MSU defense has long lived by the next-guy-up mentality and there are exciting young players ready to step up to much larger roles. The good news is that there is at least experience and talent returning in the unit, beginning with senior R.J. Williamson. Williamson was proven to be an excellent playmaker last season, who could also pick off his fair share of passes. Williamson recorded three interceptions a year ago, two of which he returned all the way back for scores. Having that type of playmaker and ball hawk in the back will be very key for the Spartans' defense as a whole. Junior Darian Hicks is also back for Michigan State. A strong, physical cover corner, Hicks rarely gets beat and should take over Waynes' role as the team's top cornerback. Hicks also proved he could force turnovers himself, with two picks last year. Plus, at the strong safety spot previously occupied by Drummond, the Spartans have an experienced weapon in Demetrious Cox. Cox has great size and awareness and while it will be very tough to replicate Drummond's production, he will make plays. Junior Mark Meyers is a solid, well-rounded safety who will most likely backup Cox and see much more snaps than he saw last year. The only big question in the unit is going to be at the cornerback spot opposite of Waynes. Youthful Vayante Copeland and junior Jermaine Edmondson are the two top candidates to start. Due in large part to the fact he is older and more experienced, Edmonson has to seen as the favorite. Three-star recruit Josh Butler arrives all the way from Texas and could be seen as a possible contributor to the position right away. Butler played in big games under the lights often in the Lone Star State and he will not be scared by big time college football. Another player from the 2015 Class that is sure to have a bright future for the Spartans is going to be Grayson Miller. Another three-star prospect, Miller has all the talent to be very strong at safety. He also was a nice pickup for the staff, coming from Kentucky.
Special Teams: Junior kicker Michael Geiger had some tough slumps at points last year, but things should even themselves out for the veteran in 2014-2015, meaning the kicking game could be a strength, which is always a plus for a team. Unfortunately, the punter position is a problem, after productive Mike Sadler departed.
Michigan State lost some impressive NFL talent this offseason, but the talent on this roster up and down is still wonderful. Mark Dantonio has recruited well for his system, especially defensively, important because of the talent that is gone there. Having Cook and a veteran offensive line makes the offense manageable and possibly strong enough to help lead the Spartans to some huge wins. If MSU can pull off a home win against Oregon, their meeting with Ohio State in late November is the de facto Big Ten Championship Game. A win there puts MSU in position for a Playoff appearance. Those are some big ifs, but Michigan State wins behind their stout defense and it should once more be nasty enough to put MSU in a great bowl, at the absolute least.