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June 30, 2008
THE SCHEME: Coach Mark Dantonio is a lunch-pail guy, and this is a lunch-pail offense. It's all about establishing the run with a hard-nosed edge, which sets up play-action. Everything is centered on being tough and playing smart. Dantonio is continuing to meld the personnel to his pro-style attack after the spread days of predecessor John L. Smith.
STAR POWER: With apologies to Ohio State standout Chris Wells, Javon Ringer could be the top running back in the Big Ten. Ringer has great vision and acceleration, and he's tough. Dantonio swears Ringer is one of the most explosive athletes he has been around. Last season, Ringer became the Spartans' first 1,000-yard rusher since T.J. Duckett in 2001. Ringer finished with 1,447 yards, the fifth-best single-season total in school history. He also is the first Spartans player to lead the squad in rushing three years in a row since Sedrick Irvin from 1996-98. The knock on Ringer? He can't stay healthy.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Spartans need playmakers on the perimeter. That's a cue for 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham to shine. He almost got on the field last fall. The staff has been impressed with Cunningham's ability to run after the catch. They also say he has good judgment and leaping ability. It's time to emerge.
IT'S HIS TIME: Someone must catch Brian Hoyer's passes with Devin Thomas off early to the NFL, and sophomore Mark Dell may be the guy. He flashed promise as a true freshman last season with 20 catches for 220 yards and two TDs. The 6-2, 185-pound Dell is a lithe target with a dash of giddy-up who has the potential to be the vertical threat this offense needs to loosen opposing defenses.
STRONGEST AREA: The backfield will be one of the best in the Big Ten. Ringer is a franchise tailback, but Jehuu Caulcrick is gone after scoring 21 rushing TDs last season, which was a school single-season record. He was a sure thing near the goal line and in short yardage, and there isn't a tailback on the roster who has his plow-horse traits. Don't be shocked if underrated fullback Andrew Hawken fills the short-yardage role. When Ringer needs a blow, junior A.J. Jimmerson is primed to step in. Redshirt freshman Andre Anderson is another exciting prospect. Both backups figure to get their share of carries in an offense that loves to run.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line needs to develop quickly with four experienced players gone. There is a strong core to build around with left guard Roland Martin, right tackle Jesse Miller and center Joel Nitchman. Martin and Miller are seasoned vets who may play on Sundays, and they have to be leaders this season. Nitchman is an overachiever and try-hard guy. Junior Rocco Cironi will take over the left tackle slot. Junior Brendon Moss is the new right guard. He's athletic but needs to mature.
THE SCHEME: Coordinator Pat Narduzzi has implemented an aggressive 4-3 package that has resulted in more big plays. Last season, the Spartans had 40 sacks and 20 takeaways. It's all about being aggressive, even if it means yielding a few big plays. That style allows players to use their instincts instead of being frozen while trying to process too much information.
STAR POWER: Linebacker Greg Jones shocked many by playing so well as a true freshman last season, when he notched 78 tackles and became the first freshman to lead the Spartans in tackles since 1976. He continued to turn heads with an impressive spring and now is poised to be one of the Big Ten's best as he moves from the outside to the middle. Jones is a big-play linebacker who has good instincts.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Everyone in East Lansing is raving about end Trevor Anderson, who is strong and explosive. He dominated in practices last season while sitting out after he transferred from Cincinnati. It's vital Anderson becomes a pass-rushing force off the edge with end Jonal Saint-Dic gone.
IT'S HIS TIME: Antonio Jeremiah is primed to become a force inside at nose tackle. He kept his weight under control in the spring, when he was one of the squad's most pleasant surprises. Jeremiah is a terrific athlete who is explosive off the ball. He could assume a big role along with fellow sophomore nose tackle Oren Wilson.
STRONGEST AREA: Spartans insiders say this is the team's best secondary since 1999 and 2000. Nine defensive backs played last season and seven return. Strong safety Otis Wiley needs to show more consistency after an uneven 2007 that saw him pick off four passes and notch 49 tackles. Kendell Davis-Clark, who was second on the team with 72 tackles, is a specimen at one corner spot. He's one of four corners with some starting experience.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There is a pressing need for pass rushers with Saint-Dic and his 10 sacks gone. Anderson looks as if he'll do his part. Brandon Long has a quick first step and will get the initial shot at the opposite end in what could be a big final season. But he could be overtaken by true freshman Tyler Hoover, who is big, strong and smart.
OVERVIEW: The back seven teems with promise, but there are issues along the line. The biggest: finding pass rushers. It's also vital a strong rotation is developed at tackle. Dantonio likes his team's prospects of being strong at the point of attack. If the Spartans turn up the heat on foes, that will make a talented secondary that much more effective for a defense that thrives on being aggressive and generating turnovers.
At times, Aaron Bates looked like a freshman punter last season. He has loads of promise but needs to improve on his 39.7-yard average. There also is a massive hole at kick returner with Thomas gone; he was one of the best in the Big Ten last year. Jimmerson may get first crack, though Dell and Wiley also are possibilities. True freshman Johnny Adams can return kicks and punts. Junior kicker Brett Swenson has made some big kicks, but he needs to be more consistent and accurate. He booted a last-second, game-tying kick vs. Iowa but missed a long kick that would have beaten Wisconsin. Kickoff specialist Todd Boleski has a booming leg.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment for Dantonio has been his ability to adjust attitudes. It was needed after things got fast-and-loose under Smith. Undisciplined play no longer is tolerated, which coaches hope will eliminate those utterly confounding losses that always seemed to dog the Spartans in years past. Narduzzi is personable and bright. He quickly has forged an attacking defense that plays with an in-your-face style. Narduzzi also is a good teacher and evaluator of talent. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell is a bright mind who some feel will one day be a head coach. He has sound philosophies and schemes.
There are challenges galore for a team that typically tests itself in non-conference play. This season kicks off with a doozy: at Cal. The last time Notre Dame visited, the Spartans suffered a colossal collapse that was the beginning of the end for Smith. The Big Ten schedule doesn't include Illinois and Minnesota and sets up for a quick start with a trip to Indiana followed by a visit from Iowa and a game at Northwestern. Then, the fun begins with three games that will define Sparty's season: Ohio State, at Michigan, Wisconsin. And don't forget about the season-ending trip to Penn State.
It's official: The fan base is energized. Dantonio needed only one season to make an impact on the program, which reached a bowl for the first time since 2003. Imagine how much better Michigan State would have been had it won more close games. All six of its losses last season came by a touchdown or less; one came in overtime and another in double-overtime. Michigan State isn't ready to challenge for the Big Ten title, but don't be shocked if the Spartans snatch a New Year's Day bowl bid and finish as high as third in the conference. And maybe even more important: Michigan State finally may beat that "school from Ann Arbor" for the first time since 2001.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.