MSU FOOTBALL POISED TO REACH ELITE STATUS
Spartans no longer the “best kept secret” in college football
By Robert Bao
In nine seasons, Head Coach Mark Dantonio has dramatically shifted the program’s paradigm of success. Thrilling wins over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl and Stanford in the Rose Bowl, along with back-to-back Top Five rankings have helped propel MSU football into national prominence.
To replace key players who’ve graduated or moved on to the NFL, Dantonio has been stockpiling talent. The depth chart is loaded with gifted athletes fighting for playing time. Now that the Spartans can “sell results rather than hope,” MSU is competing successfully against perennial national powerhouses and getting commitments from highly acclaimed recruits.
Can MSU reach the playoffs and vie for a national championship? Such optimism is fueled by the return of proven playmakers led by Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun. Cook has shown his mastery of the game over three seasons as starting quarterback. Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas are considered among the elite defensive line tandems in college football this year.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s departure to coach at Pittsburgh made way for longtime assistants Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel to step up as co-coordinators. Their first test came in the annual Green and White game this spring. MSU’s defensive units attacked and disrupted the offenses, giving up only one TD and only 12 combined points.
Younger players made excellent showings in the spring game. Defensive backs Jermaine Edmonson, Arjen Colqhoun, Vayante Copeland and Darian Hicks want to make sure the “No Fly Zone” continues to bedevil opponents. In the trenches, opposing teams will find it hard to escape what Kirk Cousins, on the Big Ten Network, said “might be the best front seven in the Dantonio era.” Calhoun, Thomas, Joel Heath, Malik McDowell, Damon Knox, Montez Sweat and Demetrius Cooper make for a fierce and deep front line rotation with linebackers Riley Bullough, Shane Jones, Ed Davis, Darien Harris and Chris Frey helping to limit opponents to short or negative yardage.
On the offensive line, All Big Ten center Jack Allen and tackle Jack Conklin are considered among the best tandems in the nation. They and returning linemen Brian Allen, Donavon Clark, Kodi Kieler and Benny McGowan will create the time and space Cook and the backfield need to move the chains. Line Coach Mark Staten is looking for strong showings from upcoming players like Miguel Machado and Dennis Finley.
In skill positions, Gerald Holmes and Madre London showed ability at running back in the spring game. In the fall, highly touted recruit LJ Scott will compete with them for playing time and the chance to carry the ball, along with fellow freshman Khari Willis.
Senior wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett emerged as a playmaker in the spring and joins Aaron Burbridge, MacGarrett Kings, Monty Madaris, R.J. Shelton and A.J. Troup as deep penetration threats in the Spartan passing game. Complementing this corps are skilled pass catchers Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles at tight end.
Special teams have excelled in Dantonio’s program. Jake Hartbarger is the heir apparent to punter Mike Sadler, who had a knack for “coffin corner” kicks. Michael Geiger will return in full health for his junior season after undergoing hip surgery.
Geiger boasts the fourth highest field goal percentage in MSU history. Kings started as a punt returner last year and came close to breaking some returns for touchdowns.
To the delight of Dantonio, the Green and White game drew a crowd of 48,000. The football program has surged into the national conversation, reminding older fans of the buzz around the 1965 and 1966 national championships. With a much shorter view of history, blue chip recruits see MSU football as an exciting and winning national program where good players learn to be great players, and everyone dances.