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Pre-Season Preview: Michigan State Spartans

2009 Record: 6-7 (4-4 in Big Ten)
2009 Bowl: Alamo Bowl (lost to Texas Tech 41-31)
Final 2009 AP Ranking: Not Ranked
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (22-17 at Michigan St, 40-34 Overall)
Non-Conference Schedule: Western Michigan (9/4), Florida Atlantic (9/11), Notre Dame (9/18), Northern Colorado (9/25)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 29.7 points per game (2nd in Big Ten)
Rushing Yards/Game: 136 (6th in Big Ten)
Passing Yards/Game: 269 (2nd in Big Ten)
Total Yards/Game: 406 (3rd in Big Ten) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 26.3 points per game (7th in Big Ten)
Rushing Yards/Game: 113 (4th in Big Ten)
Passing Yards/Game: 267 (11th in Big Ten)
Total Yards/Game: 380 (8th in Big Ten)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: -0.46 per game (10th in Big Ten)
Penalties: 55 yards per game (10th in Big Ten)

Returning Starters
Offense: 6
Defense: 6
Kicker/Punter: 1

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Kirk Cousins, Jr (198 of 328 for 2680 yds, 19 TD, 9 INT)
Rushing: RB Larry Caper, Soph (120 carries for 468 yds, 6 TD, 3.9 ypc)
Rushing: RB Edwin Baker, Soph (85 carries for 427 yds, 1 TD, 5.0 ypc)
Receiving: WR B.J. Cunningham, Jr (48 rec, 641 yds, 4 TD)
Tackles: LB Greg Jones, Sr (154)
Sacks: LB Greg Jones, Sr (9)
Interceptions: FS Trenton Robinson, Jr (1), CB Chris Rucker, Sr (1)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #31
Phil Steele: #35
Pre-Snap Read: #51
Sporting News: #50

2010 Pre-Season Big Ten Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #5
Phil Steele: #5 (tied with Michigan)
Sports Illustrated: #5 (tied with Northwestern)

Bowl Predictions:
Athlon Sports: Gator Bowl (vs. LSU)
Phil Steele: Insight Bowl (vs. Missouri)

Michigan State was a disappointing 6-7 last year including losses to Central Michigan and Notre Dame out of conference. In conference they fared a little better at 4-4 losing to Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State but also dropping one to Minnesota. Michigan State has a favorable schedule this year as they play a non-conference schedule that any team in football would sign up to play (Western Michigan, Florida Atlantic AND Northern Colorado?). In conference they have tough road tests at Penn State and Iowa but they get Wisconsin at home and don't have to face National Championship contender Ohio State. Michigan State appears to be right outside of the Big 4 (Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin). Can they break into the top tier of the Big 10 before Nebraska joins the fold next year? To learn more about Michigan State we couldn't turn to a regular college football blog. We had to go to someone who has known the lowest of lows and has endured the unthinkable depths of blogging about a winless team. We felt that was the only way to gain real perspective into this years team. So we turned to the Detroit Lions blog (and Michigan State fan) The Lions in Winter to find out what is in store for the Michigan State Spartans this year.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the Spartans?

When it comes to strengths, it's hard not to begin with the two-time preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and consensus first-team All-American, MLB Greg Jones. Standing at 6'-1", and currently listed at 240, Jones is slightly undersized for a traditional Big Ten MLB, but makes up for it with speed, and off-the-charts intensity. The heart and soul of the defense, Jones has led the team in tackles in 23 of his last 26 games, and is currently in second place on the active NCAA career tackles list, with 359, at a 9.2 tackle-per-game clip. Outside of fellow senior, starting SAM Eric Gordon, though, the LB corps has talent, but is very young.

The Spartans are going to be most dangerous on the offensive side of the ball, with "Captain" Kirk Cousins returning for his junior year as the unquestioned quarterback. Cousins's rival for snaps at the helm last season, junior Keith Nichol, has bulked up and converted to wide receiver. The former Elite 11 QB prospect and Oklahoma Sooner certainly looks the part; just view the first photo in this gallery (he's on the left). In 2009, as a sophomore, Cousins completed 60.4% of his 328 passes for 2,680 yards, 19 TDs, and 9 picks.

With one or two notable exceptions, Cousins has displayed preternatural poise and decision-making skills. Often during 2009, Nichol was subbed in for a series right as Cousins was getting in a rhythm; this blogger is not the only that thought this switcheroo cost the Spartans at least one, and maybe more, wins in 2009.

At tailback, the Spartans are very young, but very talented. The Spartans landed two Rivals 4-star tailbacks in their 2009 recruiting class, and both played extensively. Larry Caper was billed as a straight-ahead bruiser, and Edwin Baker the explosive slashy type. Their builds and skills bear that out--but Caper showed a real knack for reading gaps in the line and making a quick cut into space, and Baker ran harder between the tackles than expected. Baker averaged 5.0 YpC on 85 rushes, and Caper netted 428 yards and 6 TDs with his 128 carries. 6'-2", 230-pound freshman Le'Veon Bell may be deployed around the goal line, and speedy 5'-7", Rivals 4-star Nick Hill can spell Baker as a speed back.

Finally, the TE group: Between fifth-year senior Charlie Gantt, junior Brian Linthicum, 2009 Rivals 4-star Dion Sims, and junior Garrett "Yeah My Brother's Name is Brent" Celek, the Spartans are stacked at tight end. All stand 6'-5" tall, and they range in size from 238 pounds (Linthicum) to an astounding 285 (Sims). One hopes that they'll help shore up the main area of concern for the offense: pass blocking, and the offensive line.

At left tackle, fifth-year senior D.J. Young gets the nod, after starting 2009 at RT. 6'-8", 308-pound redshirt freshman OT David Barrent was a 2009 Rivals 4-star, but injury has kept him off the field so far this summer. If Barrent can recover, he may yet see the field this year. At center, fifth-year senior John Stipek will start. I thought that 2009 4-star recruit Nate Klatt might push him for time, but Dantonio has said that Stipek's play has taken a great leap forward from last season to now. At guard, junior Joel Foreman will hold down the left side, but right guard is a battle between sophomores Chris McDonald and Zach Hueter, and massive converted DT Antonio Jeremiah. Jeremiah, a 2008 four-star DT prospect, goes 6'-5" 360, and has been getting looks at guard and even fullback(!) in spring ball and camp. Look for him all over the place in goal line packages. Right tackle is still a competition between 5th-year senior J'Michael Deane, and junior Jared McGaha, with Heuter possibly in the mix as well.

Another other major area of concern is the defensive backfield. At cornerback, senior Chris L. Rucker has been impressive, and is by far the best player in the secondary; with another strong season he could be a mid-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft. However, both redshirt sophomore Johnny Adams, and true freshman Mylan Hicks, will be counted on to contribute heavily. Behind them, 5th-year senior Marcus Hyde and junior Trenton Robinson will start at strong and free safety, respectively. Both are returning starters--but that's cause for alarm, not reassurance.

Finally, the Spartans got a lot of sacks last year, but a high percentage of them came on the blitz. If the defense is going to be successful, they'll have to get a lot of pressure from the front four--and wow, are they young. Inside, true sophomore Jerel Worthy shows impressive athleticism for his size (6'-3", 305). He'll be paired with another true sophomore, the offensive coordinator's son, Blake Treadwell. Treadwell, at 6'-3", 277, was a 2009 Rivals 4-star center prospect, but now will be trying to get upfield from the other side of the ball. Sophomore DE Tyler Hoover will have to live up to the potential his 6'-7", 265-pound frame promises, and fifth-year senior DE Colin Neely must blossom as he takes over the other end spot. This extremely young defensive line may also get a boost from prize 2010 recruit William Gholston, former Buckeye Vernon Gholston's cousin. Though he likely won't start, Gholston's Rivals 5-star ability, and 6'-7", 250-pound frame, will see time on the field--how much time is likely up to his production.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test?

If for no other reasons than it's at home, at night, on national TV, and it's Notre Dame, Notre Dame. I have very real doubts about ND's level of talent and experience on both sides of the ball, but if there's one thing new head coach Brian Kelly has done, it's win, early and frequently, wherever he's gone. There will be an interesting subtext here, too, as Kelly was rumored to have finished second to Dantonio in MSU's last coaching search--and when wasn't offered the Spartans job, he left Central Michigan to take over Dantonio's Cincinnati program. Don't think both coaches, and Spartan fans, aren't aware of the implied career measuring stick this game represents.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

I don't think there's a question that Ohio State is the scariest team in the Big Ten this season--but then, they're not on the schedule. I'd say the toughest game to win is going to be the last: a road game in Happy Valley. Not only have the Spartans never beat Penn State on the road, but they'll be the guest of dishonor for a potential JoePa's Last Game. I don't like the odds for a victory out there.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

Hands down, no question, it's WR/KR Keshawn Martin. With a jawdropping 411 yards and 5 TDs on only 18 catches, plus 665 yards and a TD returning kicks, the former high school quarterback enters his junior year as the starting Z receiver. At 5'-11, 185, he's got the explosive game of a slot receiver, but the frame to play outside. Also, that "former high school quarterback" thing comes into play when offensive coordinator Don Treadwell is feeling frisky. In 2009, he threw three times for three completions, 40 yards, and two touchdowns. A very under-the-radar, diamond-in-the-rough-type success story, "Key" is not only a triple threat, he's very well-liked and incredibly easy to root for.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

I'm going to say Cousins. I'm thinking he has a very, very big junior year in store. He's always displayed precocious understanding of the game, and with his first full offseason as the unquestioned starter, he should be ready to take a big step forward.

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

Jones, no question. After Jones? Still Jones.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

The Spartans are going to need both corners to play up to their potential, but they're also going to need 6'-7", 265-pound sophomore pass rusher Tyler Hoover to immediately apply pressure to the opposing quarterback. True freshman CB Mylan Hicks is getting a lot of buzz as being much more polished than a freshman corner ought to be--and given the Spartans' struggles in coverage last season, any production they get from him will be a great boost. Getting pressure without blitzing, and improving man-to-man coverage on the outside, will go a long way towards fixing the Spartans' pass defense.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Actually, though there's a list of true sophomores that will start or get heavy reps (Caper, Baker, McDonald, Sims), I don't think there's a "newcomer" who fits the bill. Le'Veon Bell may get a lot of goal-line carries, and touted freshman punter Mike Sadler may actually end up winning the placekicking job--which shows you how sorely Brett Swenson will be missed.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

There are a wealth of possibilities here--but through strength of bloodline and obvious opportunity, I'll go with true freshman Max Bullough, a third-generation Spartan linebacker. Son of Shane Bullough, nephew of Chuck Bullough, and Grandson of Max Bullough, the Rivals 4-star inside linebacker will likely see the field early and often. Currently listed as the #2 MLB behind Greg Jones, Bullough will see time outside, inside in relief of Jones, or inside as part of a much-rumored new 3-4 package that puts Jones at ROLB.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

Partially thanks to the Buckeye-less schedule, and partially thanks to an even-weaker-than-usual crop of non-conference opponents, I see an 8-4 overall record, and 4-4 Big Ten record, as the likely finishing point. I'd be satisfied with that, given the extreme youth of the defense, and the transitional state of the offensive line--not to mention, the suspensions and dismissals that ravaged the skill position depth chart. However, thanks partially to facing Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford in his first two, and having half his skill position players suspended in his third, Mark Dantonio has yet to win a bowl game as coach at MSU. I'd happily trade an 8-win regular season for a 7-win season with a bowl victory, just to get the proverbial monkey off of Dantonio's back--but I don't think I'd trade a third straight victory over Michigan for a bowl win. Beating Michigan for the third time in a row, and second in a row in Ann Arbor, would be . . . well, awesome. Honestly, given the level of talent on the MSU roster, and level of competition in the schedule, anything less than 7-win regular season would have to be considered a disappointment.

Thanks to Ty for taking a break from covering the NFL to talk about college football with us. Make sure to to visit his blog The Lions In Winter and follow him on twitter @lionsinwinter for some always interesting commentary.

Previous Big Ten Previews: 
Illinois Fighting Illini
Indiana Hoosiers
Iowa Hawkeyes
Michigan Wolverines
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Northwestern Wildcats
Ohio State Buckeyes
Penn State Nittany Lions
Purdue Boilermakers
Wisconsin Badgers

Next Up: Tennessee Volunteers

Previous Pre-Season Previews
ACC- Boston College Eagles, Clemson Tigers, Duke Blue Devils, Florida State Seminoles, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Maryland Terrapins, North Carolina Tar Heels, North Carolina State WolfpackVirginia Cavaliers, Virginia Tech Hokies, Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Big 12- Iowa State Cyclones, Kansas Jayhawks, Kansas State Wildcats, Missouri Tigers, Oklahoma Sooners, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Big East- Cincinnati Bearcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Syracuse Orange, UConn Huskies, USF Bulls, West Virginia Mountaineers
Conference USA- East Carolina PiratesHouston Cougars, Marshall Thundering Herd, Rice Owls, SMU Mustangs, Southern Miss Golden EaglesTulane Green Wave, UTEP Miners
Independent- Army Black Knights, Navy Midshipmen, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
MAC- Ball State Cardinals, Bowling Green Falcons, Buffalo Bulls, Central Michigan Chippewas, Temple Owls, Toledo Rockets
MWC- BYU Cougars,  Colorado State Rams, UNLV Rebels, Utah Utes
Pac-10- Arizona Wildcats, Arizona State Sun Devils, California Golden BearsOregon Ducks, Oregon State BeaversStanford Cardinal, UCLA BruinsUSC TrojansWashington HuskiesWashington State Cougars
SEC- Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn Tigers, Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Kentucky Wildcats, LSU Tigers, Mississippi Rebels, Mississippi State Bulldogs, South Carolina Gamecocks, Vanderbilt Commodores
Sun Belt- FIU Golden Panthers, North Texas Mean Green, Troy Trojans
WAC- Boise State Broncos, Fresno State Bulldogs, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, New Mexico State Aggies

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