Known commodities: Third-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins can be streaky, but when he is hot, he’s a dangerous passer. He threw for 2,825 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 66.9 percent of his passes last season.
Running backs Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell combined for more than 1,800 yards last season with 21 touchdowns
B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin were effective No. 2 and 3 receivers last season
Three of four starters return on the defensive line, but two linebackers and two defensive back starters graduated.
Questions: The top three tacklers – linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon along with safety Marcus Hyde – exhausted their eligibility. Who will replace them, particularly All-American Jones? Both offensive tackles must be replaced along with center John Stipek. How will the Spartans deal with prosperity? They have followed the previous two best seasons of the Dantonio era with duds. Punter Brad Bates could be a significant loss as well.
Spring game recap: Cousins completed 22 of 29 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Green to a 24-10 victory over the White. One of his favorite targets was Dion Sims, a 6-5, 277-pound tight end who was missed last season because of legal troubles. Sims caught four passes for 63 yards, including touchdowns of 2 and 42 yards. Bell was the offensive standout for the White as he ran for 46 yards on eight carries. Andrew Maxwell, Cousins’ likely backup this fall, was 9 for 21 for 120 yards with a touchdown for the White. Maxwell’s top target was the versatile Martin, who caught three passes for 64 yards, ran five times for another 27 yards and attempted one pass (it was incomplete). He was involved in several gadget plays, including taking a direct snap on a couple of occasions.
Issues addressed: Head coach Mark Dantonio, whose stoic demeanor sometimes makes friend and former boss Jim Tressel look like Jim Carrey, was positively ecstatic when talking about the progress his team has made on both sides of the trenches this spring.
There were a lot of new faces working on the offensive line as both starting tackles and center were open and Joel Foreman, a returning starter at guard, sat out recuperating from wrist surgery.
“I think we’re very talented up front,” Dantonio said. “We’re young but I see great athletic ability, guys who can move, are very intelligent and are athletic.”
At left tackle, senior Jared McGaha and sophomore Dan France competed while redshirt freshman Skyler Schofner shared reps with junior Zach Hueter at right tackle. Juniors Blake Treadwell and Ethan Ruhland and redshirt freshman Travis Jackson are all candidates to start at center.
“I think the future looks very bright as it ever has here on the offensive line,” Dantonio said. “That creates a lot of excitement here. Because if you can win up front and you can run the ball effectively then you’ve got a great chance.”
Defensively, he sounded excited about the development of sophomores Williams Gholston and Denzel Drone and redshirt freshman Marcus Rush at end along with junior Anthony Rashad White at tackle.
“I think on our defensive front we’ve got a pretty formidable front at this time,” Dantonio said.
End Tyler Hoover and tackles Kevin Pickleman and Jerel Worthy return from last year’s starting unit, giving Michigan State a potential strength.
“Rashad’s had a great spring for us,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi told reporters in East Lansing after the spring game. “I think you guys will be happy when you see it next fall, when him and Worthy and Pickelman are lined up next to each other at the same time. They’re going to be three special guys.”
Linebacker was an issue this spring after the graduation of three-year starters Jones and Gordon, who combined for 198 tackles last season.
Junior Steve Gardiner and sophomores Max Bullough, Tyquan Hammock, Denicos Allen and Jeremy Gainer all drew Dantonio’s praise, although the coach said they will get some competition before the season opener rolls around.
“We did recruit an outstanding class of freshmen linebackers and I think some of those guys are going to be on the field for us this year,” Dantonio said.
Hammock led the Green with eight stops in the spring game while Gardiner had five tackles, including a sack, for the White.
Narduzzi said Bullough and Hammock will compete in preseason camp to earn Jones’ spot.
Knowing that his team has had a hard time putting back-to-back strong seasons together, Dantonio suggested this year could be different thanks to the return of Cousins for a third year starting at quarterback.
They were more explosive than consistent in the running game, which came as a surprise to me given their grind-it-out reputation, and the passing game proved more proficient (20th in success rate) than I would have expected.
In general, the defense was no better than average, although the difference between success on standard downs (16th in the nation) as opposed to passing downs (106th) was striking. A below-average pass rush probably did not help the latter number.
Pro prospects**: The NFP likes Cousins’ arm, declaring him able to make all the throws he needs to with a quick release, but the evaluator notes that he struggles to see coverage sometimes and seems bothered by pressure (most QBs are, for what it’s worth…)
Martin is an explosive little guy who can make things happen with the ball in his hands while Cunningham fills the possession-receiver role.
Linthicum is a weapon in the passing game but leaves something to be desired as a blocker, and offensive guard Joel Foreman is slow but powerful. He needs to stay on blocks more consistently but has a nasty streak.
Safety Trenton Robinson is an impressive all-around player who is good in pursuit and a reliable tackler. A better player than he is an athlete.
Issues remaining/other thoughts: Dantonio talked a good game in the spring, and he has reason to feel good about what he’s building up in East Lansing. The landscape changed significantly in the offseason with coaching changes at his two chief rivals, and he looks like he might have a stronger team than both Ohio State and Michigan. But that will depend largely on Cousins building on his big junior year and eliminating lapses like he suffered against Iowa (when he was terrible). He’ll need help in the terms of a pair of tackles who had not really emerged by the end of spring ball. I was always a big fan of Jones and Gordon, but program insiders say – and recruiting rankings tend to agree- there could be more talent stepping into the lineup on defense than there was leaving last year.
The ultimate question? Can the Spartans, with youth in some key areas, prove they are ready to make clutch plays more often than not, or will they lapse into some habits that have cost them in the past?
*SBNation has spent the summer previewing teams across the country using Football Outsiders’ advanced stats. They’ve started a movement not unlike SABRmetrics in baseball, and while I don’t agree with all of the tenets they are establishing, I find them often informative and always interesting. This is just my takeaway from the lengthy preview for this squad. **These are culled from evaluations published by Wes Bunting of The National Football Post. He goes in-depth on a handful of draft-eligible players on every team, and I have significantly boiled them down, so I recommend you read the whole thing.