Football preview: Spartans to crash bowl party

"We started building a solid foundation in 2003." "We've become accustomed to having success, and success breeds success. We're not satisfied with what we accomplished this season. We're hungry to become the premier team in the Big Ten." --safety Jason Harmon

(EAST LANSING) - Nobody expects anything from the Michigan State football team.

What else is new?

Last year, most pundits said John L. Smith's team would be lucky to escape the Big Ten cellar. But the inaugural version of Smith's green and white regime shocked opponents by running up an impressive 8-4 record on the way to an Alamo Bowl bid. At various points in the season, MSU was ranked in the top ten in the country.

Not bad, huh?

But the pundits are consistent if nothing else. This year they are predicting a 7th or 8th place finish for Michigan State. A look at the returning roster reveals Smith took over a senior laden team. While the Spartans have 22 lettermen returning on offense and 20 on defense on two full time starters return. Still, the team has talent, especially in their receiving corps, which should put the MSU spread offense in good stead.

Much depends on the success Smith has in replacing quarterback Jeff Smoker, now with the NFL's St. Louis Rams. Smoker quickly picked up the MSU offense and ran it with great success.

"It's hard replacing a guy who is that accurate," said Smith. "Right now, [Drew] Stanton should be back and he will be completely healthy and ready to go. He is going to be a nose ahead of those guys even without spring ball. He will be a nose ahead of Stephen Reaves, Damon Dowdell, Brian Hoyer and John Van Dam... and they will have to beat him out and that's the way I see us starting off."

The MSU schedule is favorable early on. The Spartans start on the road at Rutgers before taking on the Central Michigan Chips in their home opener. Then the Spartans host a still smarting Notre Dame team intent on revenge for last year's dismal season.

"This is a year that we are very young and our depth is not were it needs to be in several places," said Smith. "Our numbers are not where they need to be as a program and it is going to take another good recruiting year, on top of last year, to fix the numbers situation and the depth situation. The defense is going to have to carry us at least through the first half of the season and we will rely on them to keep us in some games. Eventually, the offense will mature and by midseason I expect us to be a good football team."

A look at the Spartan defense reveals the following:

The leader of the unit is free safety Jason Harmon. Harmon was moved to the safety position after coming on strong late in the 2003 campaign. Now Harmon is viewed by many as one of the best players in the conference after recording 108 tackles, three interception and four forced fumbles.

"We started building a solid foundation in 2003," said Harmon. "We've become accustomed to having success, and success breeds success. We're not satisfied with what we accomplished this season. We're hungry to become the premier team in the Big Ten."

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior will team with returning junior strong safety Eric Smith to form on the best safety tandems in the nation.

Harmon says he intends to be a leader on the field and in the locker room. "I need to become a leader on and off the field. I want to lead by example and show my teammates that I'm willing to go out and do anything necessary to get the job done. I think it's important to lead by performance. I want to do more than talk a good game; I want to consistently perform at the highest level. The bottom line is players follow guys that produce."

The Spartans moved Jaren Hayes, a former running back into one of the corner positions and will hold their breath to see if he can make the transition at the thinnest position on the roster. Hayes has looked good in early drills for the green and white, but what will happen when the lights come on? If not, junior Ashton Watson will get a lot of playing time.

Senior corner Rod Maples is what he is, an experienced no-nonsense technician who is a capable defender. Maples isn't the shut down corner you'd love to have taking a portion of the field away, but he is a solid cover corner who might have a future as a nickle or dime back at the next level.

The Spartans line up four solid starters across the defensive front. Clifford Dukes is the player with breakout potential. The 6-foot-3, 257-pound end recorded 57 tackles and 7 sacks last year and figures to be the Spartans main pass rushing threat. Senior Kevin Vickerson and 315-pound junior Brandon McKinney are the run stuffers inside while sophomore Clifton Ryan will try to fill the huge shoes of departed end Greg Taplin.

While the front four appears solid, the linebacking corps might cause a few grey hairs among the coaching staff. Senior Ronald Stanley returns with his health intact. After posting a solid 101 tackles in the middle last season, he will be the anchor for this group that must stay healthy for MSU to have any chance to challenge for a bowl bid.

Seth Mitchell has been an enigma his entire MSU career. Heading into his junior season there is no question that Mitchell has the speed, technique and talent to be an all-Big Ten caliber player, but health issues have kept him from fulfilling the promise he's shown. Even with those injuries, he posted 103 stops - second only to Harmon - among MSU starters. Mitchell is the key to a sucessful unit in 2004.

The unknown among the unit is new bandit Tyrell Dortch. Dortch has had an injury plagued career at MSU. After suffering a horrific season ending knee injury his sophomore season, he returned and played tentatively in the offensive backfield last year. Coach Smith made the move to switch Dortch to the hybrid safety/linebacker position he used so well at Louisville. He has good quickness and speed, but whether he can make the transition to defense successfully is the biggest question mark on the Spartan defense.

Biggest question mark: Dortch at bandit and Hayes at corner. They are athletes to be sure, but can they pick up the necessary techniques to make the move to these key positions in one offseason and produce as starters?

Strongest position: Safety, with former corner Jason Harmon and Eric Smith.

Best player: Harmon.

Deepest unit: Safety, with capable Greg Cooper in reserve, this is the one unit that could actually rotate a third player into the group.

Next edition - A look at the Spartan offense.

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