Spartans Looking For Defense

Michigan State coach John L. Smith is coming off of two consecutive losing seasons and the natives are restless. Last season started off promising with four wins to start the season, including the epic overtime game against Notre Dame in South Bend. But six losses in the last seven games, most of which were marred by mistakes and sloppy play, cost the Spartans a chance at a bowl game.

Michigan State's fortunes in 2006 rest largely on the shoulders of senior quarterback Drew Stanton. Stanton ranks as possibly the best quarterback in a conference packed with talented signal callers. He comes off a season in which he threw for 3,077 yards and 22 touchdowns, completing 66.7 percent of his passes. He also racked up 338 yards and scored four times on the ground. With great size and speed and a strong arm, Stanton is the goods. Sophomore Brian Hoyer will be Stanton's back up without much competition after highly regarded redshirt freshman Domenic Natale recently decided to transfer to Rutgers.

The running back situation looks strong. Smith prefers a spread offense with one running back. Sophomore Javon Ringer is fast and tough. He led the Spartans in rushing last year with 817 yards and a shiny 6.7 yards per carry average. Junior Jehuu Caulcrick is a big (245 pounds), bruising runner that can pound a defense. In spring practice redshirt freshman A.J. Jimmerson stood out. He is bigger than Ringer and faster than Caulcrick.

Wide receiver is a position of strength heading into the season. Leading receivers Jerramy Scott and Matt Trannon return. The 6-foot-6 inch Trannon has recovered from a broken jaw suffered during basketball season. His size creates many match-up problems for opposing defenses. Scott and third receiver Terry Love are both somewhat average sized but have good explosiveness and run-after-catch ability. Sophomores Carl Grimes (brother of Notre Dame receiver David Grimes) and Ryan Allison provide depth.

A key to the success of the Spartans offense will be the play of their offensive line. Three starters must be replaced from last year. The left tackle will be junior Mike Gyetval, who started at right tackle last year. That leaves talented Jesse Miller as the starter at right tackle. If he's healthy left guard Kyle Cook is the Spartans best linemen. However, he missed all of spring practice with a shoulder injury and his availability is in question as fall practice approaches. Highly-touted sophomore Roland Martin enters the fall as the starter at right guard and needs to show that he is not all hype. John Masters steps in as the center. Depth is a concern, especially if Cook isn't in the lineup.

76th in the nation in rushing defense, 85th in the nation in passing defense, 87th in the nation in total defense--the numbers don't lie. Michigan State was a poor defensive team in 2005. If they do not make a marked improvement in 2006 it will be difficult to see them in bowl contention. Senior Clifton Ryan moves from end to his more natural position of tackle in 2006. That leaves sophomores Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw to man the ends. Both are somewhat undersized but quick. Smith and defensive coordinator Chris Smeland hope they can use that quickness to improve a pass rush in dire need of improvement (16 sacks in 2005).

The Spartans best player on defense is linebacker Kaleb Thornhill. Thornhill missed much of spring practice with injuries, and that has been his history since arriving in East Lansing. His presence is badly needed to strengthen the entire defensive unit. Redshirt freshman Andrew Hawken had a good spring and will work behind Thornhill. David Herron and SirDarean Adams are the other starting linebackers. Adams is fast and athletic while Herron is the team's most experienced linebacker. Depth throughout the position is a major concern.

Junior college transfer Nehemiah Warrick steps into the lineup as the strong safety. The coaches expect big things from him. He will team with sophomore Otis Wiley at safety. The coaches tried Adams at safety in the spring, but moved him back to linebacker because of Wiley's impressive play. The corners will be Greg Cooper and returning starter Demond Williams. Cooper moves over from strong safety and has good size and athletic ability. Williams is undersized but a good cover man and tough. Depth is also a concern here, as Cole Corey was dismissed from school and recently sentenced to prison time on sex charges.

Michigan State's kicking game was terrible last year, as evidenced by the 31 percent success rate of their field goal kickers and highly regarded punter Brandon Fields struggling all year. There is reason to believe Fields will bounce back, and the spring gave walk-on kicker Todd Boleski a chance to shine. Special teams cost the Spartans some games last year and improvement is needed all around to avoid the same in 2006.

Smith is feeling pressure to succeed immediately in East Lansing. Not only have the Spartans lost more games than they've won the last two seasons, but there have been some ugly losses included. Undisciplined play on the field seemed to be the theme surrounding the Spartans last year. Another losing season may ultimately cost Smith his job.

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