One year ago, Mark Dantonio did everything but come out and scold the Big Ten media folks who predicted the Spartans to finish third in the league -- reminding everyone repeatedly that veteran leadership from players such as Javon Ringer, Otis Wiley and Brian Hoyer would be missed in 2009.
A rough few months ensued, but at least Dantonio came out looking prophetic. The Spartans finished well short of expectations at 6-7 and endured some off-the-field trouble that further indicated a lack of strong voices in the locker room.
On Aug. 2 at the Big Ten media sessions in Chicago, the Spartans received no such preseason love from the media, and Dantonio again played contrarian. He expressed mostly optimistic thoughts about his team's chances on the field in 2010 -- and heaped praise on its intangibles. At one point he said these Spartans have the best chemistry he's seen in his coaching career.
"I'm certainly very excited about it," Dantonio said. "I just see a bunch of givers on our football team, I see a very unselfish attitude. I don't see a lot of takers, I see givers. I see guys who care about each other.
"I see our two tailbacks (sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker) rooming together and wanting to room together. I see people helping other people. The things that (strength) coach (Ken) Mannie said consistently coming out of the weight room has been very, very positive in terms of the work ethic and attention to detail and chemistry in there."
Now if the Spartans can figure out how to stop the pass and run the ball better than they did in 2009, they can improve that chemistry by winning a lot of games. There is much to like about this team, starting with junior QB Kirk Cousins and a loaded fleet of receivers, and continuing to All-America LB Greg Jones and a deep and talented group of backers and tackles.
What the defense needs, though, is to get more pressure from the end positions, rather than relying as much on blitzing -- where Jones was a terror last season with a team-high nine sacks. And it needs a thin secondary to come up with much better numbers than last season's dreadful 32 touchdowns allowed and six interceptions.
"That was really tough on us last year," said Jones, who was dominant for a team that was typically stingy against the run. "Especially the defensive backfield because they were really disappointed in themselves. ... (But) if you're not getting pressure, they're in coverage for a long time."
On the other side of the ball, the Spartans continue to search for a consistent running game and need to perform better in the red zone. The development of an offensive line that loses three fifth-year senior starters will be critical in that regard. Sophomore RBs Caper and Baker both have the talent to be top Big Ten backs, and showed as much while learning on the field as true freshmen.
And then there's place kicking. Brett Swenson departs with every major kicking record in school history, leaving sophomore Dan Conroy and redshirt freshman Kevin Muma to battle for the unenviable task of replacing him. They were deadlocked -- with neither looking especially impressive -- after spring ball.
Still, the Spartans have a favorable schedule that keeps them in the state of Michigan until Oct. 23 and misses Ohio State, and they have a head coach who clearly feels better now than he did a year ago.
LB Greg Jones was named Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year, and media gave him the actual award after last season. Jones also was a consensus first team All-American. But he looks different this year -- up to 240 after playing at 228 as a junior. Jones looked into the NFL after last season and was told he should probably bulk up if he wants to play MLB at the next level.
"It's a man's game," he said of the NFL, and he also said he has not lost any speed despite the weight gain.
Jones, fellow senior standout LB Eric Gordon and young LBs such as Chris Norman, Denicos Allen and celebrated incoming freshmen William Gholston and Max Bullough give the Spartans tons of depth and versatility at the position. That, Mark Dantonio said, his staff plans to use more 3-4 fronts this season. The Spartans used a three-man front on obvious passing downs in Dantonio's first three seasons but now want to mix it in on running downs as well.
QB Kirk Cousins can't wait for the Oct. 30 game at Iowa. For one thing, he last season's heartbreaking 15-13 home loss to the Hawkeyes the toughest setback of his athletic career. For another, Cousins has never been to Kinnick Stadium as anything but a huge Iowa fan. His grandfather played there and is an Iowa booster, and Cousins spent many an afternoon in the stadium rooting for the Hawkeyes. His grandparents have promised to wear green and white on that day at their 50-yard line seats.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: It gets interesting early, when rival Notre Dame visits Spartan Stadium for a night game on Sept. 18. That will pit Notre Dame first-year coach Brian Kelly -- who interviewed for the MSU job in 2006 -- against Dantonio, the man who got it. And Kelly, of course, followed Dantonio at Cincinnati and had great success there. The other three games, against Western Michigan, Florida Atlantic and Northern Colorado, should be convincing victories.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: That an offensive line with a lot of depth and talent forms into a powerful unit and allows the Spartans to play their preferred style of football. Michigan State has not overpowered people as desired in the past two seasons, but the personnel is in place to make a jump there. And a reliable running game can do wonders for a defense.
AREAS OF CONCERN: That the safety positions will continue to be a weakness. The Spartans struggled there last year and need starters Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson to make major strides in their communication and playmaking. Otherwise, some extremely young players such as redshirt freshman Jairus Jones could find their way onto the field.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Last year definitely had a different feel than this season. ... We were both pushed as players and it definitely made us better as players. But it wasn't easy to go through." -- Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, on last year's competition between Cousins and Keith Nichol -- which ultimately left Cousins with the job and Nichol at WR.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, fourth year, 22-17
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kirk Cousins -- As a sophomore -- and the second sophomore captain in school history -- Cousins was mostly good or better with 2,680 passing yards and 19 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He did make a few critical mistakes, most notably a pick at Notre Dame with the Spartans driving for the potential winning touchdown. Having learned from his mistakes and having won the job outright after splitting time with Keith Nichol last season, Cousins should be in line for a big season. And there's no question he's the emotional leader of this team.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Keshawn Martin -- He has been a big-play guy the past two seasons, and in 2009 he was the only FBS player to score touchdowns of 80 or more yards in three different ways. But Martin also had just 18 catches, and that number figures to double. The former QB can throw it as well, so look for the Spartans to get Martin involved constantly as a junior.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: LB William Gholston -- The jewel of the 2010 recruiting class, the Detroit prep star shunned offers from USC, Alabama and just about everyone else to come to East Lansing. At 6-7, 250, Gholston -- cousin of former Ohio State star Vernon Gholston -- is built like a defensive end, but he will start his career at LB. And Mark Dantonio has made it clear that he will start his career with steady snaps on the football field. Gholston could add some much-needed juice to the Spartans' pass rush.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
Defense -- DE Tyler Hoover, DT Jerel Worthy, DT Blake Treadwell, DE Colin Neely, LB Eric Gordon, LB Greg Jones, LB Chris Norman, CB Chris L. Rucker, CB Johnny Adams, SS Marcus Hyde, FS Trenton Robinson
Michigan State recently got great news when OT Henry Conway was cleared to play. Conway missed spring ball after suffering a neck injury, and there were concerns in the offseason that it might be a career-threatening injury. But two specialists cleared him and he enters camp "full go," said coach Mark Dantonio.
Incoming S Isaiah Lewis suffered a serious knee injury as a high school senior, but he is healthy entering fall camp. Lewis is considered a candidate to compete for playing time.
TE Brian Linthicum (knee), DT Jerel Worthy (shoulder) and DE Colin Neely (shoulder) all are back and ready to go after missing spring football. All three are key players in the Spartans' plans.
Former blue-chip WR recruit Fred Smith is apparently sticking at FB. He made the switch in the spring and is improving at the position, Mark Dantonio said. Smith had trouble losing enough weight to play his old position effectively, but he's just fine at 240 now.