But that established talent will need to be supplemented with an infusion of players learning to be champions on the fly. GSN's top-five list of rising stars includes three sophomores, a redshirt freshman and a true frosh among the movers and shakers as opening night in sunny California approaches.
1) Oren Wilson
At defensive tackle, Oren Wilson has held off a guy who's got 40-50 ponds on him. Antonio Jeremiah might have been the more heralded recruit coming in last season, but Wilson took the initiative as a freshman and has only improved his game since.
"Oren's a guy who I think has taken his game a step, a level up," head coach Mark Dantonio said recently. "He's been consistent throughout the entire summer practices here and he's sort of distanced himself from the other guys a little bit."
Wilson showed why the staff has confidence in a younger, lighter body in the trenches with a stellar scrimmage performance last Saturday. Wilson disrupted running lanes and put pressure on the quarterback from the middle of the pocket in passing situations.
"He's very productive and, again, he knows what to do so he's going to play more physical and play faster," Dantonio said.
2) Chris L. Rucker
One of the reasons fans have confidence the Spartans have turned a page is rooted in the depth of the secondary. And young players like Chris L. Rucker have a lot to do with that. Coaches have raved about him all preseason and he showed his team-first attitude by being shuttled from wide receiver to cornerback as a two-way player throughout the offseason.
Now a permanent defender (see No. 3 below for why that's the case) Rucker jumped passes and showed remarkable closing speed and tackling skills against a talented corps of receivers at the recent scrimmage.
Secondary coach Harlon Barnett on Rucker: "He's doing really well and having a really good camp. … He has always been a quiet kid, but he's coming out of his shell a little bit because he is comfortable in his surroundings and with the other players and it is starting to show on the field as well."
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi on Rucker: "He's playing really well. He's a year more mature. He's a good athlete and he's playing physical. He's doing the little things right. People forget that he was just a true freshman last year. He's gotten a lot better through weight lifting and offseason conditioning. He's also picked up the technique where he left off in the spring."
3) Keshawn Martin
With the loss of Devin Thomas and Kellen Davis, many see a lot of questions marks surrounding the Spartan passing game heading into the season. But Hoyer seemed to put the kibosh on that idea recently, singling out Martin, among others, as a frosh with great potential.
Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell concurs: "Keshawn Martin has really jumped out at us as a true freshman. He is explosive and he catches the ball tremendously well; he has very soft hands."
Note the attributes Treadwell emphasizes: explosive and soft hands. Can you say special teams impact player?
Plus, the emergence of Martin and Fred Smith at wide receiver has allowed the Spartans to keep Rucker on defense full-time, much to the delight of Coach Barnett.
4) Charlie Gantt
As mentioned, the loss of Davis at tight end might rival the loss of Thomas when one considers how important balance is to the passing game. Finding that soft spot in the middle of a zone as the linebackers bite on play action is a big play waiting to happen, especially in the redzone.
Gantt looks like he's ready to be a go-to guy after the last scrimmage, when he caught four passes for 68 yards.
"Charlie's had a good summer practice," Dantonio said. "He basically has risen up and he's playing very, very well."
5) Joel Foreman
The buzz about redshirt freshman Joel Foreman began on media day. Spartan after Saprtan singled out Forman for his outstanding offseason. Coach Dantonio said he is "built like a refrigerator" and the progress has continued in summer camp.
Foreman is pushing senior Mike Bacon very hard in the competition at left guard, one of the tightest position battles on the team.
"That's a battle every day," offensive line coach Dan Roushar said last week. "I've been pleased with both of them. Joel Foreman has continued to improve. … Mike Bacon will be afforded every opportunity to play at the highest level. Joel Foreman's pressing the issue though, that's for sure."
Honorable mention (because five was just not enough …)
Linebacker Greg Jones just keeps getting better. After leading the team in tackles last year, much is already expected. But his offseason maturity, with rigorous film study and nearly religious devotion to the weight room, not to mention his outstanding performance last Saturday with six solo tackles including three for losses and two sacks, requires him to be put on a list of players who are climbing ever higher.
"I think Greg Jones had a great scrimmage," Dantonio said. "He's a player."
Wide receiver Mark Dell just might be that guy who comes closest to replacing Devin Thomas.
He looked up to the task last Saturday with a 7-yard pass on an inside slant he turned into a 75-yard pitch and catch before getting hauled down by Wiley. Dell finished the scrimmage with three receptions for 97 yards and got plenty of looks returning kickoffs, another area where he'll work to replicate the outstanding play of Thomas last year.
Fullback Josh Rouse is the most recent in a Spartan trend of converting linebackers to fullbacks. The move appears well suited for Rouse, who had three catches for 68 yards with lots of playing time last Saturday.
"I think he has (found a home at fullback)" Dantonio said. "I think he's doing a great job at that position. … We had three last year, we'll have three there this year. I think that's a good situation."
Linebacker Adam Decker was second in the middle behind Jones on the depth chart heading into summer camp. Things seemed to have changed with Decker's steady play and a second consecutive scrimmage with lots of first-team snaps at the MIKE postiton.
After the first scrimmage, Dantonio had this to say about Decker: "I thought he was very solid. He was very controlling and he knows the defense. We're still trying to figure out what the best match-ups are in there. He has taken a definite step forward."