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March 16, 2008
By winning their last two regular-season games and thus avoiding a late-season collapse, the Spartans made obvious strides in their first season under coach Mark Dantonio. There are legitimate hopes of maintaining that progress; those hopes are boosted by productive returning starters at the skill positions, but the Spartans will be looking to fill holes on the offensive line when they begins spring practice. Replacing the productivity of NFL draft early entry Devin Thomas and a couple of solid defensive ends also will be priorities. Here's a look at the Spartans entering spring drills.
Mark Dantonio looks to build on a solid 2007 season.
Offense—7: WR Deon Curry, WR Mark Dell, QB Brian Hoyer, G Roland Martin, T Jesse Miller, C Joel Nitchman, RB Javon Ringer.
Defense—5: T Justin Kershaw, LB Greg Jones, LB Eric Gordon, CB Kendell Davis-Clark, SS Otis Wiley.
Special teams—2: P Aaron Bates, K Brett Swenson.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Ringer is the second-leading returning rusher in the Big Ten with 1,447 yards. Improving on that total could put him on some All-America lists at tailback. Hoyer played poorly in the Champs Sports Bowl, but during the regular season he was an efficient starting quarterback, throwing for 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. At linebacker, Jones and Gordon are back after solid years. Adam Decker, who has been slowed by injuries, has a good shot at moving into the vacant spot.
HELP IS NEEDED
The Spartans lost their top two tight ends from last season, and one of the leading contenders this spring is converted defensive lineman Michael Jordan. Four seniors who had prominent roles on the offensive line are gone. Converted defensive lineman John Stipek and former walk-on Mike Bacon will contend for starting jobs. Junior Rocco Cironi likely fills a need at tackle.
KEEP AN EYE ON
WR B.J. Cunningham: The former three-star prospect redshirted last season, but looked good in practice. And the Spartans have a need at receiver after Devin Thomas left early for the NFL.
RB Ashton Leggett: A big and powerful redshirt freshman who could assume the role that Jehuu Caulcrick held as the running alternative to Ringer.
CB Chris Rucker: Played respectably as a true freshman reserve and now will make a challenge to move into the starting lineup. He also could be in the mix at safety.
HIS TIME IS NOW
Junior FS Roderick Jenrette has been good, but sometimes out of control on special teams. But with the departure of Travis Key and Nehemiah Warrick, he has the opportunity to step in and make an impact. The Spartans need him to.
The skill positions are solid, so if the Spartans make significant progress toward rebuilding the offensive line, they will go into the summer confident of improving on their 2007 showing.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.