Michigan State returns six starters on offense, but must replace the bulk of the team's skill position players including Biletnikoff Award winner Charles Rogers. Still, there is reason for the Spartans to be optimistic. New coach John L. Smith worked wonders with his three-receiver sets at Louisville and the team has three capable signal callers. Michigan State needs to develop a running game to improve on last season's No. 8 conference finish in total offense (317.0 yards per game).
The competition should be intense throughout fall camp. Junior Damon Dowdell started five games after Jeff Smoker was suspended last season and played well, completing 57-percent of his passes and throwing for 989 yards. In nine game appearances total last season, Dowdell threw for 1,097 yards and 10 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. Redshirt freshman Drew Stanton, however, edged out Dowdell in spring ball and the two entered fall camp in a virtual tie for the starting job. Stanton is a big kid (6-3, 222) with a big arm while Dowdell, no slight individual himself (6-1, 225) is probably more athletic. Dowdell also boasts more game experience and good numbers. In four spring scrimmages, it is reported that Stanton, however, who also possesses good athleticism, was 39-of-58 for 469 yards.
Then there is senior Jeff Smoker, who was having a very good season before being suspended for a substance abuse problem. If he succeeds in beating the substance problem and earns reinstatement to the team, then the Spartans have three very capable signal callers. Smoker threw for 1,593 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in seven games last season.
Running backs analysis
Badger fans likely cannot forget Tyrell Dortch, the extremely talented Spartan running back, who, while playing cornerback against Wisconsin two years ago, suffered an extremely gruesome-looking broken leg as he leaped in the end zone to defend a pass.
Dortch is back and has assumed the starting job that was supposed to be his last season, when he spent the entire year rehabbing from the injury. As T.J. Duckett's backup in 2000 and 2001, Dortch ran for 210 and 57 yards, respectively. In 15 games he carries a 5.9 yard-per-carry average. The 5-10, 203-pound Dortch has a nice strength-speed-agility combination.
Also helping to offset the loss of the team's top two runners of a year ago, Dawan Moss and David Richard, is sophomore Jaren Hayes. A nifty runner with very good speed, Hayes ran for 346 yards (5.6 average) and four touchdowns last season.
Smith prefers to have a bigger back in his spread offense since the tailback is counted on to help in pass protection. So expect Dortch to see the bulk of the action at tailback over the smaller Hayes. Still, the talented combo will be expected to improve on Michigan State's No. 10 conference finish in rushing offense last season.
A player of Charles Rogers' caliber cannot be replaced, but the Spartans have to try. The team also losses its other starting receiver, B.J. Lovett, who was third on the team with 33 catches. Michigan State has some talented replacements, but they are very light on experience and past productivity. It will be a challenge, even in Smith's offense, for the group to make up for Rogers' 68 catches, 13 touchdowns and 1,351 yards.
The top returning receiver is senior Ziehl Kavanaght who caught 11 passes for 123 yards last season. He will be joined in the starting lineup by sophomores Kyle Brown and Agim Shabaj, who will play in the slot.
A trio of sophomores, Matt Trannon, Aaron Alexander and Ben Steckler, are also expected to receive playing time.
A different story can be found at tight end, where Michigan State may be better placed than any other Big Ten team. Junior Jason Randall returns as the starting tight end, though he will share time with another very talented player, junior Eric Knott.
Randall is a terrific blocker and a solid receiver, finishing fourth on the team with 20 catches for 255 yards and three touchdowns last season. Despite being a backup, Knott is considered among the favorites to win the John Mackey Award for the nation's top tight end. PrepStar and SuperPrep rated him the No. 1 tight end prospect coming out of Detroit's Henry Ford High School, where he was a teammate of Spartan quarterback Damon Dowdell. Knott played defensive end his freshman year at MSU, but moved back to tight end last year and was second on the team with 35 catches. He tallied 349 yards and four touchdowns. Like Randall, he is a very good blocker. Expect the tight ends to be a huge part of Michigan State's offense this season.
The line returns three regulars from a year ago and two other players with starting experience and should be a solid group.
The three returning starters are seniors left guard Joe Tate, right guard Paul Harker and right tackle Steve Stewart. In addition to a load of experience, this trio brings the Spartans plenty of physical play and all-around skill along the line.
Sophomore Stefon Wheeler started three games last season and takes over full-time at left tackle this season, replacing two-year starter Ulish Booker. Wheeler moves well for a 319-pound player and is expected to develop into a big-time player at the line's most challenging position.
The Spartans suffered a hit when center Brian Ottney, who had started 33 straight games, was forced to retire due to chronic knee problems. Replacing him is a 291-pound, highly regarded sophomore, Chris Morris.
The team's top reserve lineman, junior guard William Whitticker, has started 19 games.
Michigan State's offense is unlikely to become a dominating force, but it could surprise a lot of people. Whichever talented quarterback claims the reigns will have ample protection from a sturdy line, a pair of fleet-footed running backs to work with and two admirable security blankets at tight end. If the receivers develop in a hurry and Dortch is healthy, the Spartans could make some noise on the scoreboard.