InDepth: Spartan Offensive Line

Jesse Miller, a fifth-year senior at right tackle, will spearhead the development of a Spartan offensive line that not only lost six key players, but has also been hit hard by attrition. GSN takes an in-depth look at the O-line depth chart as the team prepares for the start of fall camp next week.

It's a cliché, but it bears repeating every August: Success on the football field begins in the trenches.

Looking at postgame reports last season, the surprising offensive production of Michigan State was a result of Devin Thomas, Javon Ringer, Jehuu Caulcrick and Brian Hoyer.

True. But like the words of a politician, only half true.

The real foundation of the Spartans power surge on offense had as much to do with the play of Peter Clifford, Mike Gyetvai, John Masters and Kenny Shane as anybody else.

The graduation of those four offensive linemen, along with tight ends Kellen Davis and Eric Andino, has left perhaps the biggest personnel question mark for head coach Mark Dantonio. That's six key contributors with starting experience on the line gone – a loss like nowhere else on the Spartan roster.

"We need to grow in that area a little bit," Dantonio said in Chicago last week.

Returning starters Jesse Miller and Roland Martin bring a sense of maturity and stability to the right side of the line at tackle and guard, respectively. Along with center Joel Nitchman, who started throughout last season in place of an injured Masters, the cupboard isn't as bare as it might appear.

After those three, however, the rebuilding truly begins, and nowhere will that be more important than at left tackle protecting Hoyer's blindside.

Rocco Cironi took the reigns at that all-important position in the spring, but he'll have plenty of competition from the likes of J'Michael Deane and Mike Schmeding. Although Schmeding is normally slotted on the right side, no one should doubt the professed desire of Dantonio to put his five best linemen on the field.

And that might mean guys will be switching positions. Martin has already switched from being slotted on the left side in spring back to the right – maybe.

"He'll probably stay on the right, but maybe not," Dantonio said coyly. "It just depends on how it goes for everyone else. We'll get our best players on the field."

Versatility, a virtue in the eyes of the present coaching staff, will be a keyword going forward. Being able to bounce from guard to tackle, depending on injuries and production, is something Dantonio looks for.

"(Brendon) Moss can play either," Dantonio said of the current number one at right guard, "I think (Jared) McGaha can play either . . . Cironi can probably play either . . . J'Michael Deane is a guy that continues to come — he could possibly play either, he can run."

Mike Bacon, currently the backup center, could also be a valuable fill-in at multiple positions. Last year he found time at guard and brings important senior leadership to the field, along with Miller and Martin.

At tight end, Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek look to fill the shoes of Davis and Andino. Gantt sat atop the depth chart in the spring, but two-tight end sets are common in the Spartans scheme, and improvement from both players will be key to a smoothly operating offense.

Attrition has added to the urgency of the rebuilding process. Patrick Rigan's football career is now over with a shoulder injury, reducing the depth at center. Arthur Ray's medical hardships have kept a promising prospect from even thinking about the football field, where, without the specter of cancer, he might have been a key reserve as a red-shirt freshman. And the loss of Abre Leggins, who will likely go the way of junior college with academic issues, further strains the depth chart.

And that might mean a true freshman sees playing time, a rarity in a conference like the Big Ten. Normally O-lineman redshirt to prepare their bodies for the grind of the trench, but this season might be different.

"We've got a good group of freshman coming," Dantonio said. "I think we have five good players coming in, so I'm sure one of those guys will — it might not be a perfect situation having a true freshman in there in a back-up role or something of that nature, but I think we can possibly have that. They're good players."

Ethan Ruhland might be that player, a 6-foot-5, 270-pounder who last appeared in Spartan Stadium a week ago at the Michigan High School all-star game. Zach Hueter, a 6-foot-8, 290-pounder who is also a standout basketball player, may be another candidate with the athleticism necessary to find playing time as a frosh. And Anthony Woods, 6-foot-4, 290-pounds, is yet another who could be a role player for the Spartans right away.

In the end, a great line begins in the weight room and on the practice field — that's what builds greatness on offense. It's a cliché that bears repeating, as Dantonio will happily tell you.

"The better offensive line you have, the better football team you have," he said.

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