July 24, 2012

Foundation 40: Getting into the longsnappers

EAST LANSING - The latest in our summer series profiling "The Foundation 40" on the Michigan State football roster:

88. Matt Giampapa*: * We compiled our Foundation 40 list the week after the Green-White Game, before Giampapa announced that he was transferring to the University of Tennessee.

Giampapa would have been up around No. 63 if he had served as the No. 1 long snapper throughout the spring. Instead, Steve Moore was used as the No. 1 long snapper for most of the spring and Giampapa slid in our rankings due to uncertainty as to who would handle the job in the fall.

Giampapa is a better long snapper than Moore, but Giampapa began losing favor last December. He was suspended for the Outback Bowl game against Georgia for undisclosed reasons. His term in the doghouse apparently continued into the spring.

Without Giampapa, Michigan State struggled at the long snapping position in the Outback Bowl, with two Moore snaps nearly resulting in lost points and defeat.

When asked about the long snapping position following the spring game, Dantonio mentioned no names but promised, "we'll be good at long snapper."

Two weeks earlier, Michigan State extended a scholarship offer to long snapper Taybor Pepper, and he became a late addition to the incoming 2012 recruiting class. When Giampapa moved on, the addition of Pepper made even more sense.

August Outlook: Michigan State missed Giampapa at the Outback Bowl. Will MSU miss him in the fall? It seems more probable today than in the spring, in light of Moore's off-season injury. MSU announced on Tuesday that Moore is out for the 2012 season after fracturing his C4 vertebra on Saturday. Moore suffered the injury after diving off the back of a boat and landing on a sandbar. He has full use of all extremities, with no loss of sensation, but football is obviously on hold for him.

Without Giampapa and Moore, MSU might have to rely on Pepper as a true freshman. MSU's decision to offer Pepper a scholarship in the spring rather than see him go elsewhere as a preferred walk-on looks like a good move at this point.

87. Trevon Pendleton: The walk-on fullback has scholarship talent. He turned down full rides from Ball State and Air Force to walk on at Michigan State. After one year on campus, he is getting into position to begin contributing, if needed.

Pendleton (5-11, 245, R-Fr., Lucasville, Ohio/Portsmouth West High) will likely back up Niko Palazeti as the second-string fullback this fall.

Pendleton has good ball skills. He rushed for 967 yards as a senior in high school despite missing the last four games with a broken leg. He was also three-time all-state, and Associated Press All-Southeast District Defensive Player of the Year after amassing 78 tackles at linebacker. Rivals.com listed him as the No. 3 fullback in the nation and a 3-star recruit. But because he committed to Michigan State as a preferred walk-on.

He's a ball player, and it's showing through on the practice field at the un-glorified position of fullback.

Pendleton had a 3-yard TD reception from Connor Cook in the April 19 Jersey Scrimmage.

August Outlook: Although Pendleton has a good chance to reside in the two-deep this year, the back-up fullback has not received much playing time in recent years at Michigan State. The starting fullback is usually in on about half of the offensive snaps. In other snaps, MSU often goes without a fullback or uses a motioning tight end as a pseudo fullback. The Spartans rarely have a need to sub a back-up fullback into the game.

Last year, Palazeti received precious little playing time as a redshirt freshman behind starter Todd Anderson. Pendleton is likely headed for a similar scaled-back role. However, he has more ball skill than back-up fullbacks of previous teams, so there is a chance that the substitution pattern could change slightly for the position.

If nothing else, Pendleton is a quality fullback, offering good injury insurance as he works toward a larger role in the future.

As for his blocking ability, Pendleton set his jaw and delivered a strong block on Kyler Elsworth on an isolation play early in the first quarter of the Green-White Game. Both guys were willing, hard-hitting combatants on this stalemate. That single play pitted No. 87 on The Foundation 40 against No. 52, and make no mistake about it, it was a quality, hard-hitting football play by a couple of non-regular walk-ons that many teams would accept as being first-string quality.

Later in the first quarter, Pendleton and linebacker Darien Harris combined for a terrific collision during a zone lead. Harris was equal to Pendleton's power, resulting in another spirited, full-contact stalemate. Good football.

And in the second quarter, Pendleton delivered a heavy block on Denicos Allen. That was a de-cleater by Pendleton, during a hook-and-lateral play.

The takeaway: Pendleton was a prolific ball-skill guy in high school, but in the Green-White Game he showed a willingness and ability to serve an offense as an agile, heavy-hitting blocker.

86. Kevin Muma: The back-up place kicker earned a role as a kickoff specialist last year. Muma (6-0, 189, Jr., Troy, Mich.) ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten in kickoff distance, and tied for fourth in touchbacks with 17.

The last time Michigan State used a kickoff specialist who was not also the place kicker was 2006-08 with Todd Boleski.

In May of 2006, Boleski was No. 57 in the countdown. He had one year of experience as the kickoff specialist and was due to compete with incoming freshman Brett Swenson for place-kicking duties. Boleski never won the place kicking job. But the difference between having a kickoff specialist at No. 57 (in 2006) and No. 86 today is more evidence of MSU's improved depth.

The incoming freshman class will be a part of the 2012 roster. So how do we rank players who have yet to wear Spartan green for even one practice week? For reasons of semi-consistency, we decided years ago to begin listing the incoming freshmen at No. 65, and count upward until every member of the class is listed.

A class of 20 would fill slots between No. 65 and 85. If MSU happens to have enough noteworthy walk-ons in the top 65 to push scholarship players outside of the top 85, as has been the case this year and last year, then so be it, and with it comes evidence of strong roster depth.

In contrast, the Foundation 40 listing in 2002 ran out of noteworthy playing group personnel at No. 56 (lineman Alphonso Townsend, who had sat out 2001 as a non-qualifier). We had to commence the incoming freshmen at No. 57 (Akron, Ohio DB Carlos Alexander. We thought Alexander had the best chance of helping early due to MSU's lack of depth at safety. Alexander did play more than 15 snaps in the season opener against Eastern Michigan, but never played again for MSU).

Despite plenty of scholarship room in 2002, Michigan State and Bobby Williams singed just 19 players that year. The incoming freshman class filled slots No. 57 through No. 75 (St. Louis DB Brandon Massey). From there, slots No. 76 through 84 were filled by walk-ons who weren't playing group candidates (OL Joe Brooks, DB Richard Bryce, DB Paul Cummings, TE Eric Easter, RB Tim James, DB Chad Simon, DB Mitch Herrema, lineman Matt Hasbrook). Those walk-ons in the high 70s weren't as talented or accomplished as walk-ons ranked in the high 90s in this year's Foundation 40.

Why compare to 2002? That was Williams' final season. It ended with a 4-8 record and Williams' firing. The Spartans were

We had RB/DB Mike McConnell at No. 84 and RB Tyrell Dortch at No. 85. Dortch was trying to recover from a devastating leg injury and his future as a player was in doubt; McConnell had been academically ineligible the year before and was questionable for the roster in 2002. They were kind of on hold. We put "on hold" players at the tail end of the top 85.

Now, onto the 20 incoming players:

85. Jamare Mills: The junior college tight end isn't expected to enroll until January. Mills is taking classes at Lansing Community College and is not yet officially part of the program, but he was part of the 2012 recruiting effort. So we'll put him at No. 85, at the tail end of the incoming class.

Mills (6-5, 262, Brenham, Texas Community College/Dublin, Ohio) is expected to accumulate enough credits at Lansing Community College to gain admission for spring semester. As a player, Mills compares favorably to current Spartan Dion Sims by Michigan State coaches, in terms of size and versatility.

84. Jack Conklin: The offensive lineman from Plainwell was a late addition to the recruiting class. Conklin (6-5, 285) was expected to attend prep school in 2012 and become a D-1 prospect for February of 2013. Instead, Michigan State made a decision to offer a scholarship in the spring, after the 2012 recruiting cycle and prior to what was expected to be an evaluation season in prep school.

He will redshirt and spend a year on the scout team. He has grown three inches and 50 pounds in the last 18 months. He will work to reshape some of that weight and grow into his frame from a footwork standpoint.

83. Zach Higgins: An offensive guard from Alliance, Ohio/Marlington High, Higgins is coming off a knee injury. Higgins, listed at 6-5, 305, will have the luxury of redshirting and working back into good health and good shape.

82. Kodi Kieler: The offensive lineman from Gibraltar (Mich.) Carlson High is the only four-year scholarship player signed as an offensive tackle prospect in 2012 or 2011. At 6-6, 305, he has the frame and wheels to be an intriguing o-tackle candidate. He is likely to redshirt, but the door could be open to get in the two-deep within 24 months if he develops quickly and if injuries persist at offensive tackle for the Spartans.

81. Tyler O'Connor: The quarterback had a strong summer, earning team MVP honors in the Ohio North-South All-Star Game and the Big-33 All-Star Classic. With Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook in place, the Spartans will be able to redshirt O'Connor if the players ahead of him stay healthy.

80. Riley Bullough: The linebacker was listed at 6-2, 220 on signing day. He might be a few pounds heavier than that now, after continued development in the weight room. He was bothered by injuries last fall and should have the luxury of redshirting this fall, thanks to Michigan State's tremendous depth at the linebacker position. MSU coaches believe they have a very good idea of what they are getting in the next Bullough, they feel good about it, and he will be able to develop at a realistic pace.

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