Spartans offense expects to score early and often

Agim Shabaj has come on. [But]as talented as Shabaj is, [freshman Carl] Grimes will push him, and he is the real deal. He is a super talented young man.--Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin

(EAST LANSING) - Michigan State couldn't have picked a better year to break in a new starting quarterback. It seems every team in the Big Ten is doing the same. Across the conference it's a variation on a theme, "new quarterback needs to gain experience."

For Michigan State, Drew Stanton appears as if he will be at the helm of the Spartans when the team opens the season September 4 at Rutgers and offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin is comfortable with that scenario.

"Drew just has a little moxie to him, a little cockiness, and I think that's good and you need that as a quarterback," Baldwin said. "He has leadership ability. When he steps into the huddle he looks at you. He's tough, he showed that on our special teams last year. I think the offensive linemen like that. He shows those qualities."

Smith is a little more hesitant to name Stanton the starter this early into fall practices.

"Anytime you lose a senior, I think it's hard because everybody gets used to those guys," said Smith. "And a guy that's been in the program that long - other guys look to him. But that's part of the deal. It's always hard replacing seniors. You always hate to see those guys go, but it's the nature of the beast and we have to do it every year. Somebody's going to step up and fill that position and fill that leadership role. We'll have to wait and see who exactly that is going to be."

If Stanton falters, redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves would be next in line followed by senior Damon Dowdell and then true freshman Brian Hoyer.

But MSU's biggest problem might be fielding a decent offensive line. The Spartans lost a group of experienced linemen to graduation and will struggle to fill the void left in their absence.

"One concern is our offensive line," said Baldwin. "Two are returning starters and we have about seven guys who have a shot, so it's not a personnel problem. Stefon Wheeler is our left tackle; Kyle Cook has moved to left guard; Chris Morris returns to center; our right guard is Whittaker and Sean Poole is the right tackle," said Baldwin.

"Mike Gyetvai is challenging Poole and Gordon Niebylski can play at any one of those positions. The challenge is just getting the starters to gel together as a unit and combining that with a running back and a starting quarterback. But the line is the center of all that. We need to be an 11-man unit. We don't have Jeff Smoker anymore and there will be more pressure on the line to open up holes and we need to be able to run the football."

If the Spartans can get the unit to gel, Stanton will have a talented group of wide receivers, arguably the best in the Big Ten, to throw to.

"I like the wide receivers because they are competitive," continued Baldwin. "Matt Trannon had a disappointing year [in 2003], then he went and did well with [the Spartan] basketball [team] and I feel he has really improved. Agim Shabaj has come on. As talented as Shabaj is, [freshman Carl] Grimes will push him, and he is the real deal. He is a super talented young man. Kyle Brown has been named a captain, and that's just the kind of work ethic he has. Aaron Alexander will be moved in and out of all positions. You may see him be a little goofy off the field, but believe me on the field he is all business. He is very intelligent football wise. Jerramy Scott can play too."

Grimes, a true freshman who committed to Michigan State, then switched to Florida State and back, has made an immediate impact in his short time in camp. He is among a group of freshman who will see playing time in their first season in East Lansing.

Two others who could see the field, ironically are tight ends. "For us to have a running attack in a single-back offense, your tight end has to be a big part of that," Baldwin stated. "I think they came back in much better shape than they were last season. Jason Randall and Eric Knott shared time last year, and I'm not naming a starter. We've had some freshmen come (Kellen Freeman-Davis and Craig McGovern) in and make an impression. The tight end position is a strong position."

While MSU switched their top two tailbacks to defense this offseason (Jaren Hayes and Tyrell Dortch) that won't leave the team lacking the big back that Smith favors. Senior DeAndra Cobb will team with junior Jason Teague and freshman Jehuu Caulcrick and perhaps freshman Tony Howard to give MSU speed and power in the backfield.

"I see a good battle taking place," said coach Smith. "Don't forget Jason Teague. He's a tough guy that's pretty darn sharp and can handle the protections, and runs the ball hard, and has stepped up and shown that `I want to do the right things off the field, Coach, so I can get some snaps on the field.' He's shown that now, so we're giving him more snaps."

"You take a look at it and I'm assuming this year to a degree we're going to be a running-back-by-committee much like we were. Hopefully not as much by committee. Hopefully, we can find a guy and spot play the others where they're best suited and when they're best suited. I feel pretty confident in the running back spot. I think we're going to be more physical than we were."

Depsite having so many young players in the playing group, Smith is hoping he doesn't have to scale back his spread attack. "I think that's not necessarily going to depend on the quarterback as much as the [offensive] front [line] and how quickly they come together. I think that may have to happen, but again, I expect our quarterback, whoever it is, to be able to handle what we're going to give him. I'm a little worried with that offensive front [line] and just how much we can throw at those guys, because they can't afford to make mistakes."

Smith isn't worried about where MSU is being picked by the preseason prognosticators this season, he has loftier goals in mind.

"Our goal is this - the guys down the road have the bull's-eye on their chest, right? We want that. That's what we have to get. We want to take away that bull's-eye and pin it on our chest. And the only way that's going to happen is for us to win a championship. So no, we want to be picked as No. 1, but the only way we're going to get picked No. 1 is to be No. 1 and win that spot. So to be perfectly honest with you, no, we want to get this program to where we're picked to win it all."

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