Mark Dantonio has transformed Michigan State into one of the nation’s top programs in recent years. The Spartans have claimed at least 11 wins in four out of the last five years and finished No. 3 nationally in 2013. Dantonio’s team is poised for another run at the Big Ten title, especially with senior quarterback Connor Cook back under center. But the big question for Michigan State is on defense with a secondary that loses its top two players from last year and lost coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2015
Michigan State has a third-year starter in Connor Cook who’s poised to become the winningest quarterback in school history and set several all-time passing marks this season. Cook has the advantage of being protected by what’s expected to be the best offensive line of the Mark Dantonio era. Senior All-American Jack Allen brings an ornery presence to center, while left tackle Jack Conklin is a celebrated talent some project to be a future first-round NFL Draft pick.
The extent of the Spartans’ offensive success is a matter of who steps up to replace Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. The Spartans have plenty of talent at the receiver and running back positions, but it is unproven. Players will need to grow up quickly with a Sept. 12 home game against 2014 national runner-up Oregon looming.
Cook has great accuracy and a strong arm, leading the Big Ten in passing yardage last season, but receivers such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton need to be more consistent, and the Spartans have plenty of room for improvement in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Josiah Price likely will remain one of Cook’s favorite third-down and red-zone targets.
Tailback is less settled, with the status of Delton Williams up in the air after his indefinite suspension in the spring, and slashers Madre London and Gerald Holmes jockeying for pole position heading into fall camp. Incoming freshman LJ Scott will compete immediately for the starting tailback job regardless of how the depth chart reads entering August.
Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2015
The Spartans have finished in the nation’s top 10 in total defense the past four years, and a dominant front four could keep that streak alive. It starts with former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun at one end, and the quick and powerful Lawrence Thomas shifting from tackle to the other end. Seniors Damon Knox and Joel Heath are at tackle alongside towering Freshman All-American Malik McDowell.
The Spartans return better-than-adequate outside linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris, with junior Riley Bullough fast becoming a rising star in the middle.
The question mark on the team is in the secondary, where Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and first-round talent Trae Waynes must be replaced. Athletic sophomore Montae Nicholson seems up to the task of playing alongside veteran RJ Williamson at safety, but the corners are much less certain. Junior Darian Hicks started 10 games last season but must win back his starting job, and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland and senior Arjen Colquhoun are in close competition. Junior Demetrious Cox has been a safety but is talented enough to play cornerback if needed. The position is shaky enough that true freshmen will be thrown into the mix in fall camp.
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Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2015
Kicker Michael Geiger is coming off an offseason procedure for a hip pointer. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger has a big leg but is unproven at punter. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is expected to handle punt return duties, while Shelton is a good bet to continue to return kicks after running one back 90 yards for a score against Penn State last season.
Michigan State has an accomplished quarterback, strong-to-dominant play on both the offensive and defensive lines, and 24 seniors. The Spartans must prove they have elite talent at the other skill positions to attain their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff. There is great potential but still much to be determined in fall camp.