Can this year’s team coalesce to become champions?
“Move the rock!” In MSU Football Coach Mark Dantonio’s parlance, the phrase means to commit to new and bigger goals, to stay hungry and to keep applying the same effort it took to win a Rose Bowl.
Those hoping that the Spartans will ease up in 2014 might be in for a disappointment. Dantonio simply will not let his team rest on the laurels of a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl title and a top five national ranking.
He’s shooting for higher goals, and there are indications that he could well succeed – again. For one thing, he boasts a proven quarterback. Junior Connor Cook, who looked ever so comfortable in big game situations last year, will lead an offense that hit stride in the conference season and returns fairly intact. Proven skill players on offense, along with depth, could allow MSU to outscore opponents as the defense works to fill some holes caused by graduation.
Last season it was the defense that had to perform its magic as the offense coalesced. This year it might be the reverse.
Plugging the holes
The nation’s No. 1 defense in 2013 loses seven key players, including six starters. Gone are starting linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, who provided leadership and made key plays all season. In the backfield, MSU needs to replace Darqueze Dennard – a first-round NFL draft choice and winner of the Jim Thorpe award as the nation’s top cornerback – and hard-hitting safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU also needs to plug the defensive line holes left by starting tackles Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover and defensive end Denzel Drone.
Some pundits expect MSU’s defense to be humming by midseason. Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi, winner of the Frank Broyles award as the nation’s top assistant coach, is back – along with assistants Harlon Barnett, Ron Burton and Mike Tressel. And they have plenty of talent with which to rebuild.
Key returners on defense include Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush at defensive end, Taiwan Jones, Darien Harris and Ed Davis at linebacker, and safety Kurtis Drummond and corner Trae Waynes in the backfield – the so-called “No Fly Zone.” Dantonio has referred to Jones as a “thumper,” an ideal physical specimen to patrol the middle.
Vying to join these proven playmakers are a number of younger players, including Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke at linebacker; Darian Hicks, R.J. Williamson and Demetrius Cox in the backfield; and Damon Knox, Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and Demetrious Cooper on the line. Cooper, a redshirt freshman, opened some eyes in the Green and White game as a potential playmaker who can affect the quarterback like Calhoun.
“He’s gained weight, and he understands his role in the defense,” says Calhoun of Cooper. “He’s still keeping the skill set, he's using it, and playing within our defense.”
In addition, MSU has some very highly-touted incoming freshmen who might see the playing field on defense next season. Malik McDowell, at 6’7”, the 290-pound behemoth and top-ranked recruit from Michigan, has the speed and size to earn playing time at either defensive end or tackle. In addition, ESPN four-star defensive line recruits Craig Evans of Wisconsin and Enoch Smith, Jr. of Illinois could earn early playing time.
Spartan fans expect MSU’s defense to gel at some point in the season.
Offense knows the drill
Initially MSU will rely heavily on the offense, a veteran unit that revolves around a quarterback who threw for 22 touchdowns last season against only six interceptions. Most importantly, Cook showed coolness under pressure earning MVP honors in MSU’s 34-24 win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game and also in the comeback 24-20 win against Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl, where he passed for a career-high 332 yards.
“He’s a very confident player,” says Dantonio. “I think he’s got a big upside in terms of what he can do with the football – not just throwing the ball.”
Offensive coordinator Dave Warner – and assistants Jim Bollman, Brad Salem, Terrence Samuel and Mark Staten – will also benefit from having proven players at a number of positions, beginning with running back Jeremy Langford and fullback Trevon Pendleton in the backfield. Langford emerged last year as a tough, productive running back who is able to make late breakaway runs to seal a win. At wide receiver, MSU only lost one senior, Bennie Fowler, while returning a slew of receivers including Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Aaron Burbridge, Mcgarrett Kings Jr. and R.J. Shelton.
The offensive line lost Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti and Dan France, but return at least seven players boasting experience –Jack Conklin, Jack Allen, Kodi Kieler, Donavon Clark, Connor Kruse and Travis Jackson. Younger players like Dennis Finley, Benny McGowan and Zach Higgins have a chance to step up, as does incoming junior college transfer Miguel Machado. At tight end, Josiah Price emerged as a weapon in the Green and White game. Joining him are Andrew Gleichert and rising talent Jamal Lyles, a converted defensive end.
Special teams will return three-time Academic All-American senior punter Mike Sadler and sophomore kicker Mike Geiger, who led the Big Ten in field goal percentage by making 15 out of 16 last seasons. Kickoff returner Shelton and punt returner Kings enjoyed solid seasons last year.
Beyond just players and coaches, Dantonio seeks to establish the same intangibles that led to success in the past.
“You have to measure up on game day but you have to measure up in the locker room too,” he says, alluding to the need to find new leaders to replace a senior class that won 42 games in four years. “Chemistry creates the culture.”
If MSU can continue its winning ways, he says, it will be the “threshold of a new era.”