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Michigan State University

Sports: Rebuilding Continues Despite NCAA Sanctions

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Despite NCAA sanctions for past violations, second-year coach Nick Saban continues to rebuild the MSU football program at full blast. There's one advantage to tunnel vision. You don't get sidetracked by distractions. Saban has his tunnel vision set on rebuilding MSU's football program, and he's not about to let distractions--like sanctions from the NCAA for previous rules violations--derail him from his destination. 'Where I came from, in West Virginia, you had damn mountains in the way,' he explains. 'You've just got to blow 'em up. In the end, the road still gets built. The road here will get built, too.'

If MSU hopes to rebuild a road to Pasadena, it must begin with the defense. Nicknamed 'Gang Green' in the mid-1980s, the once- feared Spartan defense has softened up in the 1990s, giving up more than its share of big plays. In recent seasons, MSU ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in run defense. The challenge for defensive coordinator Dean Pees this season is to field a stronger defensive front, an improved linebacking corps and a better-tackling defensive backfield. 'We have more experienced returning players, more confidence and more maturity on the defensive side of the ball,' says Saban. 'I'm very pleased with that. . . We have to give up fewer big plays. Doing that depends on three things: first, we have to do a better job of stopping the run; second, we have to be fundamentally better at tackling; and third, we have to play the ball better in the deep part of the field.'

The defensive line returns a senior tackle Chris Smith and senior right end Jabbar Threats. Several talented players will compete for the left side: redshirt freshmen Robert Newkirk and Davarrio Carter and sophomore Desmond Thomas at tackle, and sophomores Tim Laws and Dimitrius Underwood for left end. Backups include spring game standout Matt Laurino and converted tight end Elroy Reese. Senior Reggie Garnett, who led MSU with 111 tackles (79 solos) last season, anchors the linebacking corps. He will be backed in the middle by Tyrone Garland, who posted 35 tackles in 12 games, and flanked by junior Ike Reese, who can make big plays--such as three fumble recoveries last season. Sophomores Courtney Ledyard and Dwayne Hawkins will vie for the other outside linebacker post. The defensive backfield returns two safeties--senior Marvin Wright, whose 104 hits was complimented by three forced fumbles, six pass break-ups and an interception, and sophomore Sorie Kanu. They are backed by sophomores Lemar Marshall and Scott Ernsberger, and junior Dan Hackenbracht. Junior Ray Hill and sophomore Amp Campbell are slated at the corners, with three-year letterwinner Aldi Henry a proven back-up.

While expectations are for an improved defense this season, many experts wonder whether MSU can fill the departures of quarterback Tony Banks and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad--both second-round NFL draftees--and back-of-all- trades Scott Greene, who made so many key plays. But offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill feels confident that the offense will perform adequately. MSU returns 'big play' threats Derrick Mason and fellow senior wide receiver Nigea Carter, who caught the winning touchdown in last year's 28-25 upset of Michigan. However, Tranquill must find a left tackle to replace Bob Denton, field an entirely new backfield, and design plays more suited to a new quarterback--most likely Todd Schulz, who started three games in 1995 and looked sharp in the spring game. 'Todd has made a lot of progress in terms of his confidence, his consistency, his decisions and his maturity,' notes Saban. Schulz will likely be pushed by Gus Ornstein, a 6-5, 210 transfer from Notre Dame.

At tailback, MSU boasts a one-two punch with two seasoned veterans coming off injuries. Senior Duane Goulbourne returns for an unusual sixth season after two medical redshirt years. He has 1,906 career yards and in 1994 caught 15 passes for 125 yards. Junior Marc Renaud, who gained 1,057 yards last season, will try to return after knee surgery. Also in the picture are Billy Greene, younger brother of MVP Scott, and some talented newcomers, none more touted than Sedrick Irvin from Miami and Leroy McFadden from Connecticut. Junior Travis Reece will start at fullback. Although he lacks the multi- dimensional capability of Scott Greene, Reece, at 6-3, 240, has proven to be an excellent blocker. He has the talent to excel at carrying the ball and catching passes. The offensive line is anchored by junior right tackle Flozell Adams, at 6-7, 325 a major force in the league.

Three seniors starters return--guard Brian Mosallam, tight end Josh Keur, and center Matt Beard. Competing for the left tackle post will be junior Dave Mudge, 6-7, 289, and redshirt freshman Casey Jensen, 6-7, 291. The other guard post will likely go to junior Scott Shaw. Among the line backups are Marcus Chapman at tight end, who as a freshman caught two passes, both for TDs; and massive freshman Mike Brzezinski, 6-6, 322.

MSU special teams boast All-America candidate Derrick Mason and returning kicker Chris Gardner, who made 12-of-16 field goals and 25-of-28 PATs last season. Roger Fleenor, a transfer from Pacific, takes over the punting chores. 'Our No. 1 objective has been to continue to develop the attitude it takes to be consistent winners on the football field,' says Saban. 'In the second half of the Independence Bowl, I thought we lost our poise as a team. And after we'd accomplished so much, I hated to have it end that way.'

After a 24-21 halftime lead vs. LSU, MSU lost 45-26. Yet the team, which had been ranked low in the preseason, upset Michigan--and almost upset Penn State--enroute to a 4-3-1 Big Ten record. The Spartans clearly want to improve on that performance this season. But no matter which turn the road takes, to use Saban's analogy, it will bring the program one step closer to its destination. 

Author: Robert Bao

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