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2014 Fierce 40 Previews: #11 Michigan State

by DJ Boyer on Aug. 11, 2014

#11 Michigan State Spartans

 

2013 Recap:

13 wins is nothing to sneeze at, especially during a season when expectations were not that high. Michigan State finished #2 nationally in total defense and many, including us, thought as a unit they were the top unit all around. Opponents only scored over 20 points 3 times against the Spartans and no team reached the 30 points plateau as they averaged giving up a miniscule 13.2 PPG which was good for 3rd in the nation.

 

Coaching:

Mark Dantonio is finally being recognized as one of the top coaches in college football today. Dantonio was always seen as very good but was never quite considered to be in the top echelon. This past season seems to have changed that and a 64-29 record at Michigan State is very impressive.

 

Offense

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Connor Cook started the season backing up Andrew Maxwell but that didn’t last long. Michigan State suffered a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame in the 4th game of the year and from that point on you could see a definite rise in Cook and his numbers. Through the first 4 games Cook completed 52% of his passes for an average of 105 yards per game with 5 touchdowns. Over the last 10 Cook completed 60% of his passes for an average of 234 yards a game with 17 touchdown passes. Michigan State gets two more years of Cook at the controls and he will be bolstered by the return of senior running back Jeremy Langford as he makes a run at the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year where the biggest competition should be Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah. Langford and his 1,422 yards is back and behind a line that is one of the best in the conference that run blocks as well as they pass protect. The offense should have a nice balance with Cook and Langford leading the way.

Best Draft Prospect: Jeremy Langford RB 4th Round 2015.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

The Spartans had six receivers catch 20 or more passes a season ago but nobody had more than 44 as the Spartans did a great job of spreading the wealth. Bennie Fowler was the most explosive receiver but he has since graduated leaving Tony Lippett as the primary target for the passing attack. Michigan State has a stable full of younger receivers with experience and then they have DeAnthony Arnett ready to make an impression after registering 1 catch last season after transferring from Tennessee. Arnett seems to have the most talent at the position but we will have to see if he can make an impression during game situations. Lippett works the middle of the field well and runs well after the catch. What Michigan State might be lacking is that home run hitter with top end speed. It might be more of a dink and dunk system with Andrew Gleichert and Jamal Lyles getting more involved from the tight end position.

Best Draft Prospect: Tony Lippett WR UFA 2015.

 

Offensive Line:

No issues with the offensive line to speak of. There are two players returning with extensive experience and another four players that have at least 4 starts in their career. Jack Conklin is a star in the making as the freshman was simply awesome last season and next to Jeremy Tunsil of Ole Miss he was probably the best freshman offensive lineman in America. Conklin looks like a future first rounder that may not make it to 2017 as he has the talent to make an early exit for Sunday work at the next level. Donovan Clark will be the right tackle and he is more of a run blocker where Conklin seems to excel in pass protection. The rest of the line is led by center Jack Allen. Michigan State has one of the most mobile lines in the nation and the players are fairly interchangeable. Michigan State only allowed 17 sacks a season ago and the effective running game with Langford kept them out of too many 3rd and long situations.

Best Draft Prospect: Jack Conklin OT 1st Round 2017.

 

 

Defense

Defensive Line:

Only the Ohio State Buckeyes look like they have better defensive ends in the Big Ten or in the country for that matter. Ohio State is deeper but Michigan State may have the best end in the entire country in Shilique Calhoun. Calhoun was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season with 37 tackles with 14 coming for loss and 7.5 sacks. He added 18 quarterback hurries caused 2 fumbles, recovered 4, and tacked on an interception for good measure. Calhoun is a junior that looks like he will be declaring for the draft as he is projected to be a top ten overall pick and possibly going in the top five (latest Mock Draft version 3.0 for 2015 we have Calhoun drafted in the 6th position). What makes matters worse for the opposition is there is another very good end playing opposite Calhoun in senior Marcus Rush as he added 7 tackles for loss and 5 sacks last season. Michigan State managed 32 sacks with 15.5 coming from the defensive end spot or just under half. The top backup ends are both freshman. In-state talent Malik McDowell is five-star recruit as the jewel of this past class for the Spartans, and looks like he will take over for Calhoun once he departs. Another big recruit was Craig Evans at defensive tackle. He looks like he will start alongside the combo of Joel Heath and Damon Knox. There may be new starters in the middle but it will not diminish the quality of play along the line for Michigan State.

Best Draft Prospect: Shilique Calhoun DE 1st Round 2015 (Part of 2016 Draft class but looks to be a top 5-10 pick in this draft declaring early).

 

Linebackers:

The linebackers look like they can be very menacing for Michigan State. For most clubs this would be a very sound unit but for Michigan State it is their biggest question mark, since their defensive line and the secondary are so superior. Taiwan Jones is an NFL prospect but he will be moving from the outside linebacker position to the inside replacing the drafted Denicos Allen, who was the leading Michigan State tackler with 98 overall and 16.5 for loss a season ago. Jones himself posted 67 stops with 7 coming for a loss, good for 4th on the team. Juniors Darien Harris and Ed Davis will be the starters along the outside, with senior Mylan Hicks looking like the top option off the bench. The depth might be a question mark and this unit only looks like more of a liability then they actually are because of the quality of play around them. Look for Michigan State to use some different starting combinations and shuffle the linebackers around early in the season looking for the best fit.

Best Draft Prospect: Taiwan Jones LB 6th Round 2015.

 

Secondary:

Darqueze Dennard is gone at cornerback after being chosen in the 24th overall after tying for the team lead in interceptions and leading the team in pass breakups. Yet the secondary may be even better than last season. Trae Waynes played second fiddle to Dennard but still finished last season with 50 tackles and 3 interceptions. He could declare early for the draft and is a fringe 1st/2nd Round pick if he does. Kurtis Drummond should assume a leadership role not only for the secondary but the defense as a whole. Drummond is an NFL prospect in his own right after finishing 2nd in tackles with 91 and tying for the team lead with 4 interceptions. The 4 interceptions is interesting because Drummond looks stronger on film stopping the run than he does playing in the passing game. The defense was so deadly as they were #1 in the Big Ten in scoring, against the run and against the pass, while nationally they were 3rd in scoring and against the pass, while finishing 2nd overall stopping the run. Michigan State also led the Big Ten with a +13 turnover ratio intercepting 17 passes and recovering 11 fumbles. It's going to be hard to duplicate that degree of dominance but the defense will be an elite squad again and looking for a spot in the 4-team playoff.

Best Draft Prospect: Trae Waynes CB 1st Round 2016 (Good chance of declaring early for 2015).

 

Special Teams:

The coverage and return game was average last season. Michigan State certainly didn't hurt themselves but there were clubs in the conference that were far and away superior in these areas. With the kicker and punter combo the Spartans have though, it pushes the Special teams units over the edge as the “Mikes” both look like they have NFL futures kicking. Mike Sadler is one of the five best punters available in the upcoming draft and Mike Geiger is back after a freshman season that saw him go 15-16 in field goal attempts.

Best Draft Prospect: Mike Sadler P 7th Round 2015.

 

Schedule:

You want an early season matchup that will have the attention of the whole country? September 6 Michigan State goes on the road to face Oregon in a game that has National Title implications written all over it. The high powered Duck offense with Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota gauging himself against the stingy, vaunted Spartan defense, has us all very excited. The rest of the schedule looks very favorable as Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska will all be home games in East Lansing this season. If Michigan State passes the Oregon test, running the table is not far fetched.

 

Draft Outlook:

Calhoun is a sure fire 1st round pick and is expected to declare while Waynes is on the fence. Jack Conklin could turn out to be a better prospect than both of them but he is only entering his sophomore season so he needs to show he is durable and not a flash in the pan. There are dozens of other prospects with safety Kurtis Drummond looking like the player that can help himself the most with a strong season.

 

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