Michigan State has emerged as a national power under coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in each of the last four seasons and have claimed back-to-back finishes inside of the top five in the last Associated Press poll. Michigan State has a few personnel concerns heading into spring ball, and Dantonio has to replace coordinator Pat Narduzzi on the defensive side. While there’s a few new faces coming to East Lansing in 2015, the Spartans will contend once again for a top-10 finish.
5 Storylines to Watch in Michigan State’s Spring Practice
1. New Faces at Running Back
The Spartans enter spring with uncertainty at running back. Jeremy Langford expired his eligibility after rushing for 1,522 yards and 22 scores last season, while second-leading rusher Nick Hill also departs after finishing 2014 with 622 yards. Delton Williams was the team’s third-leading rusher in 2014, but his status with the team is in question after an off-field incident. Talented freshman L.J. Scott won’t arrive until this summer, which leaves Madre London and Gerald Holmes as the team’s top options this spring. Can London or Holmes stake a clear edge in the battle for carries?
2. Connor Cook’s Passing Targets
The uncertainty of Michigan State’s skill players continues at receiver. Tony Lippett was the team’s clear No. 1 target last season, catching 65 passes for 1,198 yards and 11 scores. Lippett has expired his eligibility, and Keith Mumphery also departs East Lansing after ranking second on the team with 495 yards. Macgarrett Kings Jr. caught 29 passes for 404 yards last year and was expected to be a bigger piece of the receiving corps in 2015. However, his status with the team is also uncertain after an off-field incident. Who steps up here this spring? It’s up to Aaron Burbridge, Monty Madaris and R.J. Shelton to develop a better rapport with Cook this offseason.
3. Post-Pat Narduzzi Era
This spring marks Michigan State’s first offseason under Mark Dantonio without Pat Narduzzi coordinating the defense. Continuity was important for the program, and Dantonio promoted assistants Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel into the co-coordinator role. What tweaks or changes will Barnett and Tressel install this spring?
4. Rebuilding the No Fly Zone
The Spartans have ranked inside of the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency defense in four consecutive seasons. Continuing the recent success will depend on how quick Barnett and Tressel can restock the secondary after the departures of cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond. Waynes and Drummond both earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last season and leave big shoes to fill. The spring depth chart lists Darian Hicks or Vayante Copeland at one corner spot, with junior Demetrious Cox at the other. The safety positions appear to be more defined, as Montae Nicholson is a player to watch after recording 31 tackles in 2014, and RJ Williamson returns for his senior year.
5. New Faces in the Defensive Line, Linebacker Corps
Even with the departures of Marcus Rush (7.5 sacks) and linebacker Taiwan Jones, Michigan State is in good shape in its front seven. But the Spartans will spend this spring focusing on settling a few starting jobs, as well as developing depth up front. There’s no question Shilique Calhoun is one of the Big Ten’s top defensive players, and Barnett and Tressel will spend the spring sorting out whether Lawrence Thomas fits better opposite of Calhoun at end or on the inside at tackle. Sophomore tackle Malik McDowell is also expected to have a breakout year.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Michigan State in the Big Ten:
Ohio State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten East Division, and the Spartans are just a step behind entering 2015. Michigan State will miss Narduzzi’s defensive acumen, as well as Lippett at receiver and defensive standouts like Waynes (CB), Drummond (S) and Jones (LB). However, there’s little reason to expect a big drop in wins this year. Michigan State returns one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in Connor Cook, as well as four starters from an offensive line that allowed only 11 sacks in 2014. Another 10-win season is within reach for the Spartans.