QB position still a mystery for Spartans

Michigan State started its rebuilding program in earnest yesterday with the start of two-a-day practices leading up to the August 30th opener against Western Michigan. With a new head coach, a new offensive scheme and a new overall philosophy, many questions surround the Spartans, not the least of which is who will be the starting quarterback. SpartansInsider.com analyst Mike Fowler previews the 2003 Spartans.

(EAST LANSING)- Michigan State started its rebuilding program in earnest on Monday with the start of two-a-day practices leading up to the August 30th opener against Western Michigan.

With a new head coach, a new offensive scheme and a new overall philosophy, many questions surround the Spartans, not the least of which is who will be the starting quarterback.

Smith says that junior Damon Dowdell, red-shirt freshman Drew Stanton and senior Jeff Smoker all will get similar reps and all will have an equal chance to start, but no one would be surprised if Smoker got the nod.

Smith has kept Smoker completely off-limits to the media and the senior has said and done all the right things after falling apart in what was supposed to be his breakout season due to substance abuse problems.

"Jeff has done everything we've asked for so far," offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin said. "He has not been reinstated, and he knows that. I've been impressed with his effort."

There was no quarterback last season in the Big-10 that was as talented as Smoker and if he's 100% healthy it is hard to envision anyone keeping him off the field but himself. Smoker threw for 2,579 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2001, and currently ranks third all-time among MSU quarterbacks.

Some have speculated that Smith will run two quarterbacks to avoid alienating the highly talented Stanton who red-shirted last season. It's a possibility, anything is," admitted Smith. "Is it probable? No. We like it? No. Have we? No. History would dictate that wouldn't happen. But again, nothing is out of the question. We have to wait and see."

Whoever the quarterback is, he'll need someone to throw to and the Spartans have plenty of candidates, all unproven. The most intriguing is 6-6, 229-lbs, Matt Trannon, a non qualifier who sat out all of last season and is back with the team. Trannon is built in the mold of former Spartans Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers with one exception, Trannon is more muscular than the latter two.

"He looks good, he's just been away from football," said Smith. "It's hard to have been away from football for a year's period of time and then step back in your first day out there and totally light it up. Without a doubt, he has talent. It's just a matter of mentally doing the work and getting back into the swing of it."

MSU is hoping for a breakout year from Trannon and from sophomores Kyle Brown and Agim Shabaj. Jerramy Scott, Ziehl Kavanaught and converted quarterback Aaron Alexander will also get a shot. The Spartans will need all to be productive to squeeze into the upper echelon of a highly competitive Big-10 race.

The wildcard for the Spartan offense is the presence of two extremely talented tight ends in Eric Knott and Jason Randall. While the Spartans poor mouth their lack of talented receivers, they have allowed the super talent Knott to fly under the radar screen. He has all-American type talent.

"I am excited about the tight end position, which I coach," said offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin. It's a talented, talented group. Eric Knott is as good, athletically, as you'll find in the country. He is talented speed-wise and strength-wise and he has great size. Jason Randall gives us that ability to block and knock you off the ball and be as physical as you can.

On defense, MSU hopes that recovering linebacker Seth Mitchell can stay on the field and make the kind of impact he did against Minnesota and Michigan last season. The 6-2, 246-lb,linebacker had eight tackles against the Golden Gophers and followed that effort with eight in a pating by Michigan. But then injury struck, Mitchell suffered neck 'stingers' and he was in and out of the lineup after that. Mitchell is expected to join starting middle linebacker Mike Labinjo and WHIP linebacker Ronald Stanley to form a solid trio. Monquiz Wedlow will get onto the field as a hybrid "bandit" linebacker, sort of a combination of linebacker/strong safety. Freshman Jehuu Culcrick will also likely get some time in the playing group.

The Spartans will hope for the best in the secondary, one of their weakest areas due to lack of experience. Ashton Watson and Rod Maples will likely start at the corners with Jason Harmon and possibly Greg Cooper, a non qualifier last season at Michigan, getting time with Eric Smith at the strong side.

If the Spartans can stay reasonably healthy and get production from key players like Smoker, Trannon, Knott, Mitchell and Cooper, they could squeeze as many as six to seven wins and sneak up on some teams in the Big Ten. A bowl game is not out of the question.

"We have a long way to go, we know that," said Smith, "and it starts by coming in and laying forth our expectations and trying to become more physically and mentally tough, more disciplined, all of those things. So we have a ways to go in the recruiting process, and that's going to take some years. We think we have to improve, without a doubt, upon our depth. Hopefully our ability to run will increase. There are a lot of things we have to do."


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