Non-Conference Preview -- Part 1

With the preview of the conference potion of the schedule complete, I'll embark on a pre-season tour of Rutgers' non-conference opponents. This is the first in a five part series beginning with a look at season opener Michigan State. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.


Head Coach John L. Smith inherited a mess at Michigan State last year but nonetheless quickly reversed the direction of the Spartan program.  Despite installing new offensive and defensive systems, Smith reinvigorated the previously demoralized Spartans.  Underachievers suddenly became overachievers.  Picked to finish near the botton of the Big Ten, Michigan State (8-5, 5-3 Big Ten) rebounded to finish in the upper division.  A 17-3 loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl could not diminish the success of the season.  Smith quickly relegated the Bobby Williams era to the past and firmly established the identity of his Spartan program. 

The winning season masked some serious flaws, though, and Smith has, by no means, come quickly through to the other side of the rebuilding process.  Last season, the offense and defense were mediocre at best in terms of total yardage but were more effective in terms of scoring because the Spartan's were a big play team.  The rushing offense was among the nation's worst.  As was the passing  defense.  Smith must fix these deficiencies while replacing a four-year starter at QB.  He also must continue to recruit players for his system, especially on offense, because his team critically lacks depth.  The Spartans are a young team with only 13 seniors and 14 juniors on the two-deep, made younger still by Williams reluctance to redshirt his freshman – only half of the juniors and seniors on the depth chart were redshirted.  Smith returns 13 players – plus both kickers – from an overachieving young team.  Here's a look at the rebounding Spartans of Michigan State. 


Michigan State lost only four starters from a one-dimensional offense.  Last season, the Spartans featured a spread offense that deployed 3WR, 4WR, and 2TE formations.  The Spartans don't use a FB; they employ a second TE in obvious running situations (e.g., short yardage or clock management).  Michigan State will use its receivers to stretch the defense and attack both vertically as well as horizontally.  The Spartans will use the passing game to set up the running game.  Last season, the Spartan spread offense had a potent passing game and an anemic rushing attack.  Michigan State's 2003 offensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 97 rushing yards per game (#111 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 270 passing yards per game (#23 in Division 1A)
  • 367 total yards per game (#73 in Division 1A)
  • 28 points per game (#49 in Division 1A)

The receiving corps is the only offensive unit that remotely has experience and depth.  Only backup WR Ziehl Kavanaght (11 receptions for 197 yards) was lost off the 3WR/TE two-deep.  Leading receiver Jr SB Agim Shabaj (57 receptions for 692 yards and 5 TDs plus 8 carries for 45 yards) and Jr WR Kyle Brown (29 receptions for 481 yards and 3 TDs) will retain their starting jobs.  Former backup WR Jr Matt Trannon (28 receptions for 259 yards) has displaced incumbent starter Sr WR Aaron Alexander (44 receptions for 522 yards and 3 TDs) opposite Brown.  Former backup SB So Jerramy Scott (19 receptions for 212 yards and 2 TDs) will move outside to backup Brown while true Fr SB Carl Grimes will serve as Shabaj's backup.  The Spartans return two experienced players in starting TE Sr Jason Russell (21 receptions for 218 yards and 2 TDs) and backup TE Sr Eric Knott (31 receptions for 306 yards and 2 TDs).  Though deep and experienced, the Spartan receivers are not yet that impressive and have yet to demonstrate reliable playmaking ability.  Thrown into the fire as a green unit last year, they showed more potential than actual production.  This group must carry the offense this season and improved playmaking will be crucial to realizing that potential.  

Michigan State lost three starters off an OLine that neither run or pass blocked proficiently.  Three-year starter and Second Team All-Big Ten RT Steve Stewart, two-year starter and Second Team All-Big Ten LG Joe Tate, and two-year starter RG Paul Harker departed, as did backup LG Joe Brooks.  RS Jr LT Stefon Wheeler and RS Jr C Chris Morris are the returning starters.  Former two-year starter RS Sr RG William Whitticker, whom Harker displaced in 2002, will reclaim his starting job.  Former backups RT RS Sr Sean Poole will replace Stewart while former backup C RS So Kyle Cook will slide over to LG in place of Tate.  RS Jr LG Gordon Niebylski, who was a backup LT last year, is the only experienced backup.  The rest of the second unit consists of freshman – RS Fr RT Mike Gyetvai, RS Fr RG Peter Clifford, RS Fr C John Masters, and true Fr LT Tom Kaczmarek.  The Spartan OLine is as green as their uniforms, lacking proven starters and experienced backups.  Smith can't afford any injuries on the OLine because he likely will be using a seven-man rotation. 

An experienced leader – four-year starter and Second Team All-Big Ten QB Jeff Smoker (302 of 488 for 3,395 yards, 21 TDs, and 14 INTs) – tremendously helped the Spartans transition into the new spread offense.  However, Smoker is now in the NFL as a 6th round draft pick.  His former backups barely played last season.  RS So QB Drew Stanton (2 of 3 for 39 yards) was Smoker's heir apparent but suffered an ACL injury on the punt coverage team in the Alamo Bowl.  Stanton returned for summer camp but the knee is not fully healed.  He likely won't play early in the season.  RS Sr QB Damon Dowdell (7 of 12 for 54 yards) and RS Fr Stephen Reaves are battling for the starting QB job in Stanton's absence.  Dowdell, who started five games in Smoker's absence in 2002, will likely get the starting nod due to his experience.  However, Smith may quickly hook any QB who is struggling early in the season while searching for a replacement for Smoker. 

The Spartan backfield was awful last season.  Smith tried four different players at RB but never found an answer.  As a result, the backfield has been overhauled this season.  Leading rusher and former starting RB Jr Jaren Hayes (145 carries for 609 yards and 5 TDs plus 48 receptions for 414 yards and 3 TDs) was switched to CB in spring.  Second leading rusher and former starting RB RS Sr Tyrell Dortch (65 carries for 279 yards and 3 TDs plus 8 receptions for 64 yards) was also switched in spring camp – to SLB.  Former backup RB RS Fr Jehuu Caulcrick, who was expected to make an impact at RB this year, was switched to LB late in summer camp.  Former backup RB Jr Jason Teague (47 carries for 244 yards and 3 TDs plus 7 receptions for 44 yards) will likely start.  Former backup RB Sr DeAndra Cobb (38 carries for 172 yards plus 8 receptions for 79 yards), who began last season as a backup CB, will serve as Teague's backup.  The shuffling of the backfield indicates that Smith, who prefers bigger backs who can better protect the QB against blitzes, has yet to find a RB that suits his offense.  The Spartan running game, behind a less experienced line, is likely to sputter again, especially since it won't have an experienced QB to relieve the pressure. 


Michigan State lost five starters from a still young defense that rebounded from an awful 2002 season that saw it among the worst in Division IA.  The Spartans are more experienced but still have only six seniors expected to start.  Smith employs an aggressive 4-3 defensive scheme that will gamble to create turnovers.  The Spartans led the Big Ten in TOs forced and sacks.  The 4-3 is overshifted with a NT aligned over the center and the "bandit" – really a safety/SLB hybrid – often up on the LOS over the TE.  Smith also will not hesitate to bring the SS up to linebacker depth in an eight-man front with man-to-man coverage backed by a single deep safety.  The Spartan defense was stout against the run and provided a strong pass rush but the secondary was repeatedly torched.  Michigan State's 2003 defensive statistics are summarized below. 

  • 125 rushing yards per game (#27 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 255 passing yards per game (#97 in Division 1A)
  • 380 total yards per game (#62 in Division 1A)
  • 23 points per game (#40 in Division 1A)

Michigan State suffered heavy losses from an outstanding  DLine that led the Big Ten in sacks – two-year starter, leading sacker, and Second Team All-Big Ten WDE Greg Taplin (46 tackles, 14 TFLs, and 10 sacks); DT Matthias Askew (59 tackles, 11 TFLs, 6 sacks, and 2 FF), who was an early entry NFL 4th round draft choice; and three-year starter DT Kyle Rasmussen (22 tackles) departed.  Also, former backup DT Greg Yeaster (16 tackles and 2 TFLs) suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury in November and apparently will not return.  Two-year starter and Second Team All-Big Ten RS Sr WDE Clifford Dukes (57 tackles, 7 sacks, and 2 FR) will move over from SDE to fill Taplin's vacated role as the rush end.  Former starting NT RS Jr Brandon McKinney, who missed last season with a stress fracture in his foot, will reclaim his starting job.  Former starter Sr DT Kevin Vickerson (18 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 2 sacks), who was relegated to backup duty two years ago, will replace Rasmussen in the starting lineup.  Former backup WDE RS So Clifton Ryan (16 tackles and 2 TFLs) will fill Dukes' former spot at SDE.  The only experienced backup – RS Jr DE Michael Bazemore (9 tackles and 2 TFLs) apparently has been displaced off the depth chart.  The new backups are very inexperienced – RS Jr WDE Daryl Melvin, who redshirted as a JUCO transfer, JUCO Jr SDE Domata Petko, JUCO Jr NT Daniel Zynn, and RS Fr DT Joe Toth.  The playmaking of the Spartan DLine covered many faults last year, especially in the secondary.  The Spartans will be pressed to maintain that level of performance with so much roster turnover and so little depth. 

The Spartan LBs played very solidly behind their fierce DLine.  However, the unit has been stripped of its depth.  Three-year starter SLB Mike Labinjo (94 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 3 INTs, and 2 FR), backup SLB/Bandit Monquiz Wedlow (27 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 2 FF), and backup MLB Mark Goebel (26 tackles) are gone.  Three-year starter and third leading tackler Sr MLB Ronald Stanley (101 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 3 FF) and second leading tackler RS Jr WLB Seth Mitchell (103 tackles, 7 TFLs, and 2 sacks) will anchor the unit.  Former starting RB and former backup CB RS Sr Tyrell Dortch, who was switched back to the defense in spring camp, will replace Labinjo as a true Bandit.  The backups – RS So WLB David Herron (8 tackles), RS Fr MLB Kaleb Thornhill, and true Fr Bandit SirDarean Adams – are very inexperienced.  The move of Dortch to Bandit underscores the depth problems that plague the linebacking unit.  The Spartan's defensive philosophy hinges upon the ability of the Bandit to fulfill the broad responsibilities of strong run support and effective pass coverage.  The Spartan defense may mirror Dortch's performance. 

The secondary was the Achilles heel of the Spartan defense.  Despite a fearsome pass rush from its' DLine, the Spartan secondary was routinely shredded by opposing passers.  Some unexpected attrition has hampered the development of this unit.  Backup CB Jeremiah McLaurin (8 tackles) was the only original loss off the two deep.  However, backup SS Derron Ware (28 tackles) left the program before spring camp while starting CB Darren Barnett (42 tackles and 2 INTs) transferred to Cincinnati during the summer.  Two-year starter and leading tackler RS Sr FS Jason Harmon (108 tackles, 5 TFLs, 3 INTs, 4 FF, and 3 FRs) will lead a rebuilt secondary for the second consecutive year.  RS Jr SS Eric Smith (69 tackles, 5 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 INTs) and RS Sr CB Roderick Maples (70 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 2 INTs) also return.  Former starting RB Jr Jaren Hayes, who was switched to the defense in spring camp, will replace Barnett as a starting CB.  Jr CB Ashton Watson (14 tackles) and So SS Greg Cooper (34 tackles) are the only experienced backups.  RS Fr FS Cole Corey and true Fr CB Miles Williams will round out the two-deep.  However, Eric Smith is still recovering from knee surgery.  In his absence, Harmon would slide over to SS, Cooper would move over to FS, and true Fr Tom Dance would become the backup SS.  The move of Hayes to the CB also highlights depth issues in the secondary, as Hayes immediately beat the backup CB (Watson) for the starting job.  Though the secondary is the deepest defensive unit, the presence of Hayes at CB raises questions about the quality of that depth. 


Michigan State has one of the best special teams in the nation.  First Team All-Big Ten RS So P Brandon Fields (46 yards per punt) could be the best punter in the country.  Three-year starter Sr PK Dave Rayner (22 of 29 FGAs and 39 of 40 XPAs) also returns.  Sr KOR DeAndra Cobb (27 yards per return and 3 TDs) will resume those duties again.  PR Ziehl Kavanaght (8 yards per return) was the only loss off special teams.  Jr Agim Shabaj and true Fr Carl Grimes will compete for the PR job.  Smith has earned a reputation as a special teams coach.  With a shakier offense and defense, Smith will need special teams to make a bigger impact this season if the Spartans are to maintain their remarkable progress in Year One. 


Michigan State has a full 12 game schedule with six home games.  The Spartans get a twelfth game because they travel to play at Hawaii (a bonus for teams making the long trek).  The Spartan scheudule is almost identical to the 2003 schedule, with only two different teams – Central Michigan and Hawaii replacing Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech.  The sequence of the schedule is almost identical, too.  Michigan State has two bye weeks – in late October after playing for seven consecutive weeks – and over the Thanskgiving holiday before traveling to Hawaii.  The non-conference schedule is favorable, with tough but winnable games against Rutgers, Notre Dame, and Hawaii plus a gimme against Central Michigan.  Michigan State will play eight conference games in the Big 10.  The Spartans drew a favorable schedule relative to the Big 10.  Although Michigan State plays the predicted top three (Michigan, Ohio State, and Minnesota), the Spartans get two of these games at home.  Michigan State also gets regular contender Wisonsin in East Lansing.  The Spartans play all three bottom feeders – Illinois, Indiana, and Penn State and get two of these on the road.  The home schedule features four tough opponents against whom the Spartans will have to play well to beat – Notre Dame, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.  The road schedule is also tough with games at Rutgers, Iowa, Michigan, and Hawaii.  The Spartans face a schedule with seven swing games.  They could finish with between four and eleven wins. 


September 4

@ Rutgers

September 11

Central Michigan

September 18

Notre Dame

September 25

@ Indiana

October 2

@ Iowa

October 9


October 16


October 30

@ Michigan

November 6

Ohio State

November 13


November 20

@ Penn State

December 4

@ Hawaii



I predict the Spartans will finish 6-6 (4-4 Big Ten).  As opposed the fast start last year, Michigan State will stumble at Rutgers, against improving Notre Dame, and at Iowa.  The Spartans will sweep the three Big Ten bottom feeders – Indiana, Illinois, and Penn State.  A three game losing streak to Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio State will jeopardize the season but the Spartans will rebound to win their final three, including victories over Wisconsin and Hawaii.  The road win at Hawaii will achieve bowl eligibility.  However, by early December all seven Big Ten bowl bids will be claimed and the at-large bowl bids will also be filled.  So, the the Spartans will spend the holidays at home. 

Coming Next:  Keys to the Michigan State Game.  I'll review the five keys to a huge season opener.  I'll also identify five key players whose contributions will be essential to a win. 

Please send any comments to  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.

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