By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Michigan State Spartans 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 11-3, 7-1 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 22-April 20
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 8
Passing: Andrew Maxwell, 18-of-26, 171 yards, TD
Rushing: Le'Veon Bell, 182 att., 948 yards, 13 TD
Receiving: Dion Sims, 12 rec., 99 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Max Bullough, 89
Sacks: Denicos Allen, 11
Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis, 4
Redshirts to watch: DE Shilique Calhoun, S R.J. Williamson, WR A.J. Sims, LB Lawrence Thomas, WR Juwan Caesar, LB Darien Harris, CB Trae Waynes
Aug. 31 Boise State
Sept. 8 at Central Michigan
Sept. 15 Notre Dame
Sept. 22 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 29 Ohio State
Oct. 6 at Indiana
Oct. 13 Iowa
Oct. 20 at Michigan
Oct. 27 at Wisconsin
Nov. 3 Nebraska
Nov. 10 Bye Week
Nov. 17 Northwestern
Nov. 24 at Minnesota
Offensive Strength: The running game. Four starters are back along the offensive line and both Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper return with five total years of experience in the backfield. This Spartan rushing attack could be as productive as the dynamic Javon Ringer-Jehuu Caulcrick combo of 2007.
Offensive Weakness: Not having the school's all-time leading touchdown thrower Kirk Cousins under center will hurt. But losing the school's all-time leading receiver B.J. Cunningham, as well as all-purpose dynamo Keshawn Martin and Hail Mary hero Keith Nichol, leaves the passing game with very little returning experience. All-league tight end Brian Linthicum is gone as well.
Defensive Strength: These linebackers are outstanding. Sparty legacy Max Bullough leads the team in tackles and is the heartbeat of the defense. Denicos Allen is the team's top sack master. Chris Norman is an all-conference performer in his own right as well. Toss in Tyler Elsworth, Taiwan Jones, Steve Gardiner and redshirt freshman Lawrence Thomas and Mark Dantonio boasts one of the nation's top units.
Defensive Weakness: Few defensive lineman in the nation were better than Jerel Worthy last fall. His loss, combined with All-Big Ten honorable mention tackle Kevin Pickelman and Blake Pacheco, leaves a literal and figurative massive void at defensive tackle.
Spring Storylines Facing the Spartans:
1. Replacing Kirk Cousins has to be considered the biggest obstacle of spring practice in East Lansing. Andrew Maxwell has already been tabbed as the starter and he has all the physical tools to be an excellent heir to Cousins' thrown. His mental acumen, leadership and poise were all things that Cousins had in droves and can only come with time spent under center. Maxwell has patiently waited his turn to take the helm of the Sparty ship and how he handles the pressure can only come with game experience. A fortified front line and powerful running game will help, but Maxwell needs to prove that he is more than simply a big arm and an excellent athlete. He needs to become one of the team leaders if Michigan State is going to continue its in-state domination of the Maize and Blue.
2. Finding playmakers to catch Maxwell's passes will go a long way in helping the new quarterback settle into place in the offense. Wide receivers Tony Lippett, who also started five games at cornerback in 2010, Keith Mumphrey and Bennie Fowler return a total of eight catches and no touchdowns from 2011. A healthy Juwan Caesar would help this group. Dion Sims is a solid player with some experience who will fill the void left by Linthicum and Garrett Celek at tight end. He will be joined by converted defensive end Denzel Drone at tight end. However, the big news will be the NCAA's ruling on Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett. If he becomes eligbile to play right away, he instantly becomes the Spartans' most talented wide receiver.
3. Filling the massive void at defensive tackle is really the only major issue facing Pat Narduzzi and the Spartans defense. Worthy, Pickelman and Pacheco are all gone, leaving little experience on the interior of the defensive line. Luckily, the defensive end position is loaded and can afford to push Tyler Hoover, who has bulked up after missing the 2011 season to injury, to the tackle position. Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge, Anthony Rashad, Corey Freeman and a number of redshirt freshmen should compete for playing time at tackle. This was one of the best defensive lines in the nation a year ago after allowing a Big Ten's best 100.5 rushing yards per game. If Narduzzi expects the same type of performance this fall, he will need to plaster the holes on the interior of his D-Line this spring.
4. The only other major loss for the Green Machine was first-team All-Big Ten free safety Trenton Robinson. Kurtis Drummond and Jairus Jones should get plenty of reps this spring but don't look for either to be asked to lead the secondary. Three starters return with some sort of all-conference recognition and Dantonio has already pinpointed cornerback Darqueze Dennard as a potential team captain and leader. Isaiah Lewis and Johnny Adams also return with plenty of snaps and second-team All-Big Ten honors. This is a deep group that can afford to send Lippett to wide receiver on more of a full time basis if the coaching so chooses.
Related Content Links:
Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions