After dropping a home game against Wisconsin Nov. 7, 31-24, Maryland (2-8) heads to East Lansing, Mich., for a bout against Michigan State (8-1). The Spartans are coming off a 39-38 loss at Nebraska, their first defeat of the season putting their national-title hopes on life support. Even so, Michigan State has remained resilient, despite a rash of injuries that have depleted MSU’s once-deep depth chart.
Per team media, there hasn’t been a season under ninth-year coach Mark Dantonio where the Spartans have lost so many key pieces on both sides of the ball. The injury bug first hit in preseason camp, setting the tone for the upcoming campaign. That’s when fifth-year senior Ed Davis, the team’s No. 1 linebacker, went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Then, during Week 2 against Oregon, rising-star cornerback Vayante Copeland suffered a broken vertebrae, which is expected to sideline him for most of the season. MSU’s secondary took two more major-midseason gut punches when cornerback Darian Hicks suffered a concussion and starting safety R.J. Williamson had to have bicep surgery, knocking him out until the regular season’s final week. Including the absence of junior safety Mark Meyers, who has been suspended all year due to a legal situation, and Michigan State has been forced to dig eight deep for secondary help.
The MSU offense can empathize. Both the Spartans’ starting tackles, Jack Conklin and Kodi Kieler, went down with multi-week injuries, but that was just the start of the offensive line’s troubles. Conklin’s replacement at left tackle, Dennis Finely, had to have surgery for a broken fibula and is out for the year. Then the line took an even more significant hit when All Big-Ten starting center, Jack Allen, suffered an undisclosed leg ailment, knocking him out for three weeks.
The skill spots weren’t immune to the bug, either. Lead running back Madre London hobbled off in Week 6 with yet another leg injury, and he’s just now getting back into the flow. Plus the No. 1 tight end and MSU’s all-time touchdown leader at his position, Josiah Price, hurt his left ankle and missed three-plus weeks.
Through it all, however, the Spartans have remained relatively positive. After all, they are 9-0 with a shot to knock off Ohio State in two weeks and perhaps enter the national-title conversation.
Fact is, Dantonio and his veteran staff know how to scheme and get the most out of their players, putting them in prime position to succeed. Dantonio is 82-31 at Michigan State, and there’s little reason to doubt him and his squad’s viability, regardless of who’s on the field.
Michigan State employs a pair of co-offensive coordinators, but it’s running backs coach Dave Warner who calls the plays and has the unit’s pulse. The third-year coordinator (ninth year at MSU) typically starts with a pro-set, although it would be a mistake to compare the Spartans’ attack to, say, Iowa’s or Wisconsin’s.
Instead of a traditional pro-style, complete with fullbacks and power formations, Warner prefers more unique looks. So while the Spartans will use a typical base, they’ll also do some zone running; some spread; some two-tight end sets; and every now and again some three/four receiver sets. They’re a fairly balanced attack as well, with a slight inclination towards running the football (55-to-45 run-pass ratio).
Now, many in East Lansing expected a more high-powered offense this year, but it hasn’t always been the case. Warner received some early-season criticism for a rather vanilla scheme that lacked creativity. As the Big Ten schedule has advanced, however, the Spartans have diversified the game plan and have become more proficient all-around. Still, Michigan State isn’t going to put up video-game numbers, and the offensive line remain a question mark, but MSU is more than capable of rolling up points.
Through nine games, the Spartans are averaging 34 points per (42nd in the FBS) and 422.3 yards per (48th in the FBS), including 153.7 rushing yards a game (89th in the FBS) and 268.7 passing yards a game (34th in the FBS). They’ve turned the ball over an anemic five times, giving them a turnover ratio of 16-to-5, which ranks sixth nationally. Moreover, they’re only penalized about 43 yards per game (21st in the FBS), are controlling the clock to the tune of 32:55 (15th in the FBS), and have converted an eye-popping 51 percent of third downs (fifth in the FBS). Plus the offensive line has surrendered just 11 sacks (20th in the FBS), despite the injuries.
One area Michigan State would like to improve (besides its rushing attack): Turning its redzone opportunities into touchdowns. So far the Spartans have had 37 attempts inside opposing 20s, but have converted 70 percent into six-point scores (69th in the FBS).
The straw that stirs the Michigan State offense’s drink. Senior Connor Cook (Sr., 6-4, 220), who projects as a second- of third-round NFL draft pick, recently surpassed Kirk Cousins on the all-time Spartans’ win list and continues to pile up victories in East Lansing. Physical attributes aside, the heady signal caller is a consummate leader with a knack for coming up clutch. On more than one occasion during his career he’s willed Michigan State to victory, mounting game-changing drives in the face of long odds.
Cook is more than intangibles, however. He possesses ideal size, a decent arm and solid accuracy. Cook hangs in the pocket, goes through his progressions, identifies defensive deficiencies, and then exploits mismatches. He has a quick release, can get the ball downfield and can find open receivers in the face of a rush. Moreover, Cook doesn’t make mistakes and won’t throw an ill-advised pass into coverage. True, Cook doesn’t have elite arm strength and precision, but he’s more than adequate at the college level.
For the season, Cook has completed 169-of-291 attempts (62 percent) for 2,405 yards and 21 touchdowns, against three interceptions. In the Nebraska game, Cook finished 23-for-37 for 335 yards and four scores against one pick.
The backup, Tyler O’Connor (Jr., 6-3, 22), will only see the field if Cook’s injured. O’Connor has entered for just a couple snaps all year, and has yet to attempt a pass.
Once in awhile, however, Damion Terry (So., 6-3, 235) enters when Michigan State uses its Wildcat formation. The dual-threat speedster is a threat in the open field, so he could get a rep or two if the offense needs a spark.
The Spartans may not have the most gaudy rushing totals this year, but that falls more on the offensive line’s lack of cohesiveness than the running backs themselves.
In any case, Madre London’s (Fr., 6-1, 216) return to the starting lineup should be a boon to the MSU attack. The freshman went down with a right leg injury in Week 6 but returned against Nebraska last week. A fleet-footed runner who can slip through tight creases, beat linebackers to the edge and break through initial contact, London projects as a future feature back. Sometimes London has difficulties pushing the pile, but at this stage of his career the Spartans like his ability to create yards in the open field.
So far, London has 95 carries for 399 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. He didn't play against Nebraska, but there's a solid enough chance he'll suit up against Maryland.
London’s classmate, L.J. Scott (Fr., 6-0, 233), has shown signs of being a potential big-time back too, although he's seen decreased touches of late. In any case, he's a Le’Veon Bell type, Scott’s powerful, sneaky quick and shifty. He may not have London’s speed, but Scott possesses the all-around skill-strength combination to excel in the Big Ten.
For the season, Scott has 92 attempts for 507 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. He had only seven carries for five yards last week.
The third running back, Gerald Holmes (So., 6-0, 261), is yet another loose, twitchy runner with make-you-miss moves. The Spartans get him the ball in space, either on pass routes or stretch plays, and let him go to work on opposing defenders. Although Holmes only has four receptions this year, he’s considered MSU’s top receiving back, so watch for him sneaking into the flats.
Holmes has recorded 309 yards on 61 attempts (5.1 yards per carry), to go along with five scores. He had 22 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown last week.
If those three weren’t enough to account for, there’s a fourth back who was actually supposed to start coming into the season. Suspended during the spring, Delton Williams (Jr., 6-1, 228) landed in Dantonio’s doghouse for a number of weeks. But he suddenly emerged around midseason and began receiving increased carries. Williams probably won’t assume a lead role given how well the youngsters have performed, but he’s the most experienced runner on the roster and possesses lead-back skills.
Also watch out for receiver R.J. Shelton in the running game. A track-star slot, Shelton’s been known to take the ball on end-arounds; jet sweeps; and toss plays. On 17 attempts this season, he’s tallied 87 yards, with a long of 18.
MSU features three main receiver targets, but the clear breadwinner is Aaron Burbridge (Sr., 6-1, 208), Connor Cook’s go-to guy. The senior is playing the best football during his final season in East Lansing, in the process working his way onto draft boards. A lengthy, athletic wideout with deceptive speed and sure hands, Burbridge has pulled down passes overtop the defense; in the intermediate range; and on short screens/slants. He’s able to sky above defensive backs, range over the middle, and sell deep routes before cutting off his pattern. Better yet, Burbridge knows how to settle down in windows and move the chains on third down. He’s not going to light up the radar gun or make Odell Beckham-like plays, but Burbridge has developed into a reliable, proficient Big Ten receiver.
For the season, he has 62 catches for 994 yards and six touchdowns. Against Nebraska, Burbridge corralled 10 throws for 164 yards and a score.
The second outside receiver, Macgarrette Kings (Sr., 5-10, 192), has been known to make the circus catch. Although he doesn’t have ideal size, he’s thick; physical; and has a standout vertical. Kings can pull down jump balls in tight coverage, haul in sideline throws and out-muscle defensive backs down the field. Plus Kings can motor too, showing the ability to get behind the defense and make plays up top. Now, Kings does not have the most reliable hands (he’ll make the tough grabs, sometimes drop the easy ones), nor is he the most precise route runner, so the staff would probably like to see more consistency.
Kings has 28 receptions for 402 yards and four scores this year. He had four catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Finally, there’s slot R.J. Shelton (Jr., 5-11, 195), who does his best work after the catch. Shelton’s not going to snare passes in traffic, challenge defensive backs deep downfield or wow you with his cuts, but get him the ball in space and he’ll make the opposition pay.
Shelton has 31 catches for 341 yards and three scores in 2015. Against Nebraska, he recorded four receptions for 41 yards.
The fullback, Trevon Pendleton (Sr., 6-0, 250), rarely touches the ball, although he did have a 74-yard catch-and-run against Michigan. But aside from a potential gadget play, Pendleton's a blocker first and foremost -- and a darn good one at that. Particularly potent in the running game, Pendleton excels at picking off linebackers on outside rushes and barreling straight ahead to open lanes.
When healthy, Josiah Price (Jr., 6-4, 252) should be among the Big Ten’s upper echelon of tight ends. But Price has been hobbled all year and was outright sidelined from Week 6 through Week 9.
But Price returned for a few snaps against Nebraska and should see increased time against UMD. If so, expect Connor Cook to look in his direction early and often, taking advantage of the mismatches Price presents. Price combines soft hands with a large, wide frame, an expansive catch radius, and serviceable wheels for a 6-4, 252-pounder. He’s particularly adept inside the redzone, Price hauling in over-the-middle passes in-between defenders for multiple scores. On top of that, Price is an above-average blocker who can seal off linebackers on the edge.
In seven total games, Price has just 13 receptions for 171 yards, but he’s scored five times. He had two catches for 21 yards last week.
With Price limited, MSU has subbed in two other tight ends, who have both shown signs of breaking out. Jamal Lyles (Jr., 6-3, 262) and Paul Lang (Sr., 6-5, 260) don’t possess the hands; playmaking ability; or redzone prowess Price does, but they’ve been satisfactory second options. Each presents a sizable outlet in the short- to intermediate-range, and they’re decent enough blockers too.
Combined, Lyles and Lang have 16 catches for 210 yards and a touchdown this year. Lyles actually had a 16-yard-scoring catch on his lone reception against Nebraska.
The good news for the Spartans is as many as eight linemen have seen extensive playing time this year, which should aid them down the line. The bad news is the front five’s been depleted to the point where the original starting group has rarely suited up together (they did last week against Nebraska). That’s a primary reason Michigan State’s run game is only averaging 4.0 yards per carry and 153.7 yards per game.
Fortunately for the Spartans, their Oct. 31 bye week gave some of the hobbled trenchmen a chance to recover. The feeling is the preseason starting five should all be ready to go for the Maryland bout, although it’s never quite clear since Dantonio rarely tips his hand.
If the O-Line’s revved and ready like last week, Jack Conklin (Jr., 6-6, 325) starts at left tackle; Brian Allen (So., 6-2, 298) lines up at left guard; Jack Allen (Sr., 6-2, 296) sits over the ball; Donovan Clark (Sr., 6-4, 325) is at right guard; and Kodi Kieler (Jr., 6-6, 315) starts at right tackle. When healthy, this is a potentially potent group capable of opening holes and giving Connor Cook more than enough time to throw.
The left tackle Conklin should be a first-round pick this spring and is one of college football’s preeminent all-around blindside blockers. His arm length makes it difficult for opposing ends to get into his body, while his stout base and overall strength make him tough to move. Conklin’s athletic and quick too, showing the ability to block in space; clear out linebackers; and push to the second level.
A freshman All-American who has shifted from right guard to center to -- the last few weeks -- left guard, Brian Allen should eventually top the all-conference lists. It’s taken some adjusting moving spots, but Allen has readily adapted. He has mostly been steady at left guard, in particular in pass protection. Allen can generate a push in the running game as well, but hasn’t always been consistent in that area.
Brian Allen’s older brother, Jack Allen, is another future NFLer. A tough-as-nails center, Allen’s the line’s “glue guy.” He’s a former wrestler who routinely gains leverage, clears lanes and can finish at the second level. Allen’s also adept at reading defenses and holding up in pass pro.
At right guard, Donovan Clark’s the versatile veteran leader, who has started at left tackle; left guard; right guard; and now right tackle. He’s not as effective as the likes of Conklin or Jack Allen, but Clark gets the job done and isn’t considered a liability at any spot.
Last but not least, there’s Kodi Kieler (Jr., 6-6, 315), who returned to right tackle in late October after missing a few weeks. His nastiness up front and ability to seal the edge should aid MSU’s ground game moving forward. Kieler’s also a steadfast pass blocker who held his own at left tackle in Conklin’s absence earlier this season.
One backup to note is jack-of-all-trades Benny McGowan (Jr., 6-3, 325), who rotates in at right guard, right tackle and center. He’s seen plenty of snaps this year and has been steady in spot starts. McGowan would probably start for a majority of Big Ten offensive lines.
Michigan State’s “D” figured to drop off a bit when longtime mastermind Pat Narduzzi left for the head gig at Pittsburgh. But as long as Dantonio, a defensive-minded coach, remains, the Spartans should have a potent unit predicated on pressure; forcing turnovers; and 11 hats flying to the football (last week's game notwithstanding).
Michigan State hasn’t varied much from years past, staring in a base 4-3 but moving into a variety of formations during any given series. Granted, injuries have sapped some of MSU’s creativity, so there haven’t been as many unique coverages as there would be if the Spartans had their full complement of secondary starters.
Even so, Dantonio, with the help of new defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, love to press up; get after the quarterback; and move around their linebackers and safeties to disguise pressures/coverages. They send extra blitzers on many downs, the linebackers and safeties shooting in from different spots. Plus the Spartans allow their corners to sit in man coverage, daring foes to beat them up top.
Of course, MSU does have to protect its thin defensive backfield, but so far the Spartans have only been burned occasionally (more often last week). The numbers speak for themselves:
Michigan State is holding foes to 24 points per game (47th in the FBS) and 372.3 yards per (51st in the FBS). The Spartans allow just 122.6 rushing yards per (24th in the FBS), 249.8 passing yards per (90th in the FBS), including 3.7 yards per carry and 7.8 yards per throw. On top of that, MSU has racked up 26 sacks (22nd in the FBS) and forced 16 turnovers, while allowing exactly three points off turnovers. The Spartans are also limiting opponents to a 38-percent third-down-conversion rate (69th in the FBS); a 62-percent touchdown-scoring-rate inside the redzone (59th in the FBS); and a 27:05 time of possession.
The Nebraska loss may have changed some opinions, but prior to that game MSU's D-line was considered maybe the most potent in college football. Those in East Lansing believe the current front four is the best Dantonio’s had in his nine years at the helm -- and considering MSU typically ranks among the top-10 defenses nationally, that’s saying something. This veteran group is holding teams to 3.7 yards per rush, 5.7 yards per play and has racked up almost three-quarters of the team’s 26 sacks (MSU did not record a single sack against Nebraska).
A name most every college football fan knows, Shilique Calhoun (Sr., 6-5, 250), has lived up to expectations during his final season. The future first- or second-round draft pick has been a force from the 5-technique, terrorizing opposing backfields; actively setting the edge; and routinely busting through double teams. When rushing, Calhoun possesses the initial quickness; length; athleticism; and dexterity to find his way into the quarterback’s sight-line. Regardless if he reaches said signal caller or not, he’s a disruptive force almost every down. Then, during running plays, Calhoun has the point-of-attack power; deftness; and lateral agility to catch running backs both in the gaps and in space.
So far, Calhoun has 30 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, two breakups and a blocked kick this year. But Calhoun didn't have one of his better games against Nebraska. He did not record a single tackle.
Calhoun’s partner in crime, Lawrence Thomas (Sr., 6-4, 305), rushes from the opposite edge. The former five-star linebacker has transformed into a first-rate defensive end during his senior season, a load to handle for most Big Ten tackles. Thomas has uncanny quickness for his size, nimbly maneuvering in-between gaps and even dropping back to defend the flats. He’s also exceptionally powerful, driving from his base and using his long arms to disengage and press the backfield.
For the season, Thomas has 27 stops, three tackles for loss, two sacks and 10 breakups. He had just one tackle last week.
Yet another senior resides on the line’s interior. Joel Heath (Sr., 6-6, 293) has been a stud up front, eating up blocks and wrecking havoc in the gaps. While rather large for a defensive tackle, Heath maintains leverage; gets off the ball well; and can penetrate. He’s also agile enough to make plays down the line, or slice between the guard and tackle on his way to the quarterback.
Heath has 27 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this year. He recorded two tackles last week.
The lone “youngster” up front has acquitted himself quite well thus far. The presumed future leader of Michigan State’s defensive line, Malik McDowell (So., 6-6, 275) basically mirrors Heath in terms of proficiency, if not size (McDowell’s about 20 pounds lighter). McDowell possesses a rapid-fire first step, violent hands, all-around athleticism and plenty of power. Like the rest of MSU’s front four, he’s active both in the creases and in space, flashing the strength to hang inside and the deftness to catch backs down the line.
Through nine games, McDowell has 27 stops, six tackles for loss and three sacks, to go along with a forced fumble. Against Nebraska, he tallied two tackles.
Usually Michigan State sticks with its four starters, although the Spartans will rotate through a few backups for a series or two.
The most notable of the bunch is defensive end Demetrius Cooper (So., 6-5, 245), who could be the second coming of Shilique Calhoun. The sophomore’s basically forced his way onto the field with his physical attributes (wide wingspan, long arms, large hands, powerful frame) and inherent athletic gifts (speed, agility, burst). He has 15 stops, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this year. Not to mention Cooper’s also blocked a kick on special teams.
Craig Evans (Fr., 6-2, 320) saw increased field time against Nebraska and responded with four tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He hadn't made much noise prior to last week, but the promising interior lineman could be in line for more snaps.
The Spartans did lose their foremost linebacker, Ed Davis, but the unit has had enough pieces to compensate.
With Davis out, the STAR (or cover backer) Darien Harris (Sr., 6-0, 220) reentered the starting lineup. The former DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) standout hasn’t been MSU’s most effective playmaker, but he hasn’t been deficient either. Although he may occasionally take a bad angle or fail to pick up a wideout in coverage, most of the time Harris tackles well and face-guards receivers/tight ends. He has decent range and enough closing speed to make plays in the open field.
Through nine games, Harris has 59 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and six breakups. He led the team against Nebraska, recording 13 stops and two tackles for loss last week.
The MIKE, Riley Bullough (Jr., 6-2, 230), has been a tackling machine thus far. A downhill backer who actively attacks the gaps, Bullough possesses a fast first step and terrific point-of-attack power, allowing him to penetrate. He’s not a sideline-to-sideline type or a true cover backer, but Bullough has enough lateral agility to set the edge. Plus he has strong enough hands to disengage and pick through the trash.
Bullough’s recorded a team-high 72 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. Last week, he rolled up five stops and a tackle for loss and an interception.
MSU’s strong-side backer, Jon Reschke (So., 6-0, 228), is coming into his own after injuries stunted his development. The sophomore does a good job reading and reacting, flashing initial quicks; above-average closing speed; and superior open-field tackling prowess. He’s working on his drops, angles and all-around consistency (read: maintaining lane integrity, setting the edge), but Reschke’s performed admirably in 2015.
Through nine games, he’s up to 54 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, a sack and four breakups. He had six stops and 1.5 tackles for loss in the Nebraska game.
The main backup, Chris Frey (So., 6-2, 235), can play either outside or inside. He doesn’t have a start, but gets on the field for numerous snaps each game. Frey should slide into a lead role next season, perhaps assuming the STAR spot. He’s tallied 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery this year.
The other No. 2 who sees time is Shane Jones (So., 6-1, 234), another young player who has steadily progressed. Jones has one start in 2015 and should see increased time moving forward.
A nose-for-the-ball backer, Jones has 18 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in limited action.
Considering the Spartans have been down three starters for much of the season, the secondary has been full of question marks. The group hasn’t performed poorly overall (249.8 passing yards allowed per game), but it’s definitely not as potent a unit without its foremost stars.
MSU should see cornerback Darian Hicks (Jr., 5-10, 180) return to the lineup, however, providing a boost. Hicks, who would’ve been a backup himself if not for Vayante Copeland’s season-ending injury in Week 2, was playing fairly well for six or so games. He did let a couple receivers get behind him, and his fundamentals lapsed on occasion, but, for the most part, Hicks did his job. He was able to sit in press, mirror routes and limit game-changing plays. Don’t expect him to come up with a momentum-swinging pick, but he’s fluid enough; nimble enough; and heady enough to stick to his man.
During his time on the field, Hicks had 13 tackles and four breakups.
Opposite corner Arjen Colquhoun (Sr., 6-1, 202), meanwhile, is a fifth-year Canadian native who has had an up-and-down campaign. Colquhoun has been taken to task a couple times, beaten up top by field-stretching receivers. But he’s also come up with some nifty breakups and, for stretches, provided lockdown coverage. Just like Hicks, Colquohoun has the physical tools to succeed, but he’s been exposed for fundamental mishaps.
For the season, he has 28 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack and 12 breakups. Last week, Colquohoun recorded three stops and two pass defenses.
If Hicks is truly suiting up, Demetrious Cox (Jr., 6-1, 200), who started at corner in Hicks’ place, should move back to safety. Which, really, is a better spot for him. Quarterbacks picked on Cox at corner, receivers beating him downfield and taking advantage of his inexperience at the position. But, at safety, Cox’s physicality; range; and ability to read offenses should play well. He’s a sure tackler, takes tight angles and can shoot up to undercut patterns in coverage.
In nine games, he has 51 tackles, two tackles for loss, two picks and 14 pass defenses. Cox had five tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception against Nebraska.
It remains to be seen who will start at the second safety spot, no matter what the depth chart reads. Dantonio is often mum on such matters, and has been known to change his mind on game day.
Given that, look for one of two freshmen to line up next to Cox with R.J. Williamson out and Mark Meyers suspended. Both Grayson Miller (Fr., 6-3, 200) and Khari Willis (Fr., 5-11, 202) have upside potential, but currently they’re young players trying to find their footing. Each has come up with a couple nice plays, and each possesses Big Ten talent, but they’re learning how to read quarterbacks; readjust to receivers; offer over-the-top help; and the like.
Miller has 19 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and a pass defense. He had four stops against Nebraska. Willis has a total of seven tackles and three breakups.
Although Michigan State typically stays with its 4-3 base, the Spartans do use a nickel from time to time. During those situations, cornerback Montae Nicholson (So., 6-2, 215) typically rotates in. (Who Dantonio actually tabs for the nickel job depends on how the injury situation shakes out). Nicholson, who started five times this year, was supposed to be a stud, shutdown corner. But he’s struggled with his coverage and tackling technique, taken to task and burned up top more than a few times. He’s supremely talented and has big-play potential, but it remains to be seen if Dantonio will trot him out there if the mistakes continue.
Nicholson’s numbers suggest he’s had a fine season, but they don’t tell the entire story. He’s recorded 43 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two picks and four breakups.
Special teams is another area Michigan State’s staff is concerned about. Yes, MSU’s specialists received plenty of positive pub following Jalen Watts-Jackson’s last-second fumble return for a game-wining touchdown during the Michigan game, but it’s been a shaky unit otherwise.
The Spartans have had issues with their long snapper and holder, resulting in two blocked kicks this year. Furthermore, the coverage hasn’t always been on-point; the kicking game’s been hit or miss; and the returners aren’t exactly the second coming of Devin Hester.
Kicker Michael Geiger (Jr., 5-8, 186) certainly has the leg strength and gumption to convert from 50 yards out. But so far his accuracy has been off, proving he’s not the most reliable booter -- even on chip shots.
Geiger, who has had two field goals blocked, is 7-for-11 this year, with one miss from 28 yards out and three more from 35 yards. He has a long of 47 this year.
The kickoff specialist, Kevin Cronin (Jr., 6-1, 225), has been OK, although the staff would probably prefer he send his boots into the endzone a bit more often. So far, Cronin’s had 11 touchbacks on 54 attempts.
Meanwhile, punter Jake Hartbarger (Fr., 6-4, 210) projects as a future All-Big Ten selection given his leg strength (42.6 yards per boot) and penchant for pinning opponents deep/flipping field position (10 punts placed inside the 20-yard line). Since Dantonio has been at MSU he’s had two four-year punters, and Hartbarger should be next in line. That said, Hartbarger’s struggled at times early during his career, forcing the Spartans to give Tyler O’Connor (Jr., 6-3, 222) a few opportunities. Hartbarger remains the No. 1 option, but he has to be more consistent with his directional accuracy.
As far as the return game is concerned, neither kick returner R.J. Shelton or punt returner Macgarrette Kings have wowed thus far. Shelton has decent speed and solid vision, but isn’t a home-run threat. Typically, he’ll give Michigan State a 20-plus yard return, with the chance to break past midfield if the blocking’s in place. Shelton is averaging 21.6 yards per bringback this season.
Kings, for his part, has sure hands and doesn’t fumble the ball, which is about all that’s asked of him. He has just three returns this season, with a 9.0-yard average.