MICHIGAN STATE OVERVIEW
Mark Dantonio enters his tenth season at the helm of the Michigan State Spartans with an 87-33 overall record and 52-20 mark in Big Ten play. With the loss of several key players, Dantonio and his staff will be tested in 2016 unlike any of the past three seasons where they’ve played in two Big Ten Championship Games. Played in the College Football Playoff and won a Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl.
2015 was a magical season, but can the Spartans put together their fourth consecutive double digit win total?
Many teams across the country would love to have a fifth-year senior starting quarterback. However, for Michigan State, Tyler O'Connor has limited experience despite playing a key role in the team’s win over Ohio State last season.
All eyes will be on O’Connor with the departure of Connor Cook. However, the loss of Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donavon Clark along the offensive line and wide receiver Arron Burbridge are just as big.
One strength for the Spartans and O’Connor will come from the running game as the Spartans return four proven backs in Gerald Holmes, Madre London, L.J. Scott and even Delton Williams. Concerns in the passing game could be answered if true freshman and early enrollee Donnie Corley can play at the level he showed during the spring. Senior R.J. Shelton gives the offense options to work with at the z-receiver spot.
Big questions will need to be answered along the front four as the Spartans saw Shilique Calhoun graduate to the NFL and a couple of other players expected to play big roles leave the program in Montez Sweat and Craig Evans.
Demetrius Cooper will look to fill Calhoun’s shoes at rush end and Malik McDowell should continue to cause havoc and nightmares to opposing offensive linemen. But the rest is yet to be determined as to who will join them along the front four. In the past week the Spartans have added former Nebraska defensive tackle Kevin Williams to provide instant help.
Linebacker looks like the strength of the Spartans defense as Riley Bullough returns as the teams emotional and stat leader. He’ll be joined by Jon Reschke, Chris Frey, Shane Jones and Andrew Dowell. All could be starters if needed showing the depth Dantonio has built at the position.
The return of Vayante Copeland from a fractured vertebra will have Spartan fans on the edge of their seats. The loss of Copeland a year ago cause major issues in the secondary and many on the Spartan coaching staff feel he’s got the tools to be a first-round draft selection.
Because of all the injuries a year ago the secondary did add several guys with experience. Demetrious Cox returns along with Darian Hicks and Montae Nicholson. However, any struggles by the trio could see them replaced with some young talent as players like Tyson Smith, Khari Willis, Grayson Miller and David Dowell are chomping to get on the field.
There should be few questions about special teams as the Spartans return senior kicker Michael Geiger. Last season Geiger was 12-19 in field goals but hit the game winner at Ohio State and was 4-5 from 40-49 yards out. Punter Jake Hartbarger averaged 42.7 yards per punt with 17 punts of 50-plus yards. Kickoff specialist Kevin Cronin averaged 60.1 yards with 23 touchbacks. Shelton will be back to return kicks but someone must step up to take over the punt return section of special teams.
It would be easy to pencil O’Connor here but we feel the Spartans will get back to pounding the rock and put LJ Scott in a position to have a giant season after coming off a 699-yard effort last season with 11 touchdowns.
While it’s always easy to name an offensive skill player as the MVP, keep an eye on the defensive side as defensive lineman Malik McDowell and linebacker Riley Bullough could also be considered here.
The table is set for true freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley to have a big impact on the offense when the Spartans open the 2016 season. He received a lot of praise from the coaching staff during the spring and many project he could have a freshman season that will earn him freshman All-American honors.
2015 RECORD: 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
2015 FINAL RANK: AP 6 / COACHES 6
2015 POSTSEASON: 38-0 loss to eventual National Champion Alabama (Cotton Bowl)
MULTIPLE YEARS OF SUCCESS: Since 2010, Michigan State has enjoyed five seasons with 11 wins or more.
STAFF CHANGES: Mark Dantonio will enter 2016 with the same staff he had a year ago. Coaches don’t often leave Dantonio unless they are taking head coaching positions.