The last two seasons the Michigan State Spartans have won 11 games. In 2010 they split the Big Ten title with Ohio State and Wisconsin, while this past season they lost to the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game.
Heading into 2012 the expectations still remain high for the Spartans, despite the fact they lost several key players on their offense and defense to graduation and the NFL Draft.
SpartanMag.com's Paul Konydyk gave us a breakdown of Michigan State as they come out of spring practice. This year Nebraska will travel to East Lansing to take on the Spartans in a key November divisional match-up.
Where is this team coming out of the spring? They obviously lost a lot of key guys, but they've really been able to reload the last few years without any problem.
"I think they feel like they are in a position where they think they can build off of last year. There are some holes to be filled, but in terms of the meat and potatoes of the team - the two lines, I think they feel like they are where they need to be. I think that's maybe one of the differences with this team as opposed to some of the teams that we've seen in the past. Instead of saying 'we need this guy to fill a role' or there is 'one or two guys that need to step up', it's more like 'one of this group of six' needs to step up. The offensive line and defensive line are both coming back and they are coming back with depth and strength and a lot of confidence.
"Across the board I think there is more program depth and there has been every year under Mark Dantonio. Every year it's been a little bit better, but this year particularly there's a ton of depth. While there are holes to be filled, I think they have the bodies to do it. The biggest hole on the team would be at the skill positions starting at quarterback and then wide receiver. They are replacing all their guys at quarterback and wide receiver."
Kirk Cousins brought so much to Michigan State's offense the last couple of years from the quarterback position. How have they gone about replacing him this spring?
"I think when you look at Michigan State at quarterback, they lose a lot from the emotional standpoint with Kirk Cousins, and they needed that desperately the last two seasons. I think he filled some of the holes in the program and the program has kind of grown around him. The guy they've got coming into the program Andrew Maxwell has been a two-year back-up and he's been in the program for three years. He absolutely has as good of a grasp on the offense as Kirk Cousins. He might even be according to the coaches a little bit smarter than Cousins, which I don't know is possible. He's very sharp when it comes to the X's and O's. He is lacking experience and that's the problem with him.
"They feel like they are in a pretty good spot. They feel like he would've started at more than half of the Big Ten schools last year and he would've definitely started at Michigan State if Cousins wasn't there. He's been a patient under study, which is rare in college football when you see guys transferring left and right when they don't start after the first few years. Even when he signed in 2009 he was the top-rated quarterback signed in the Big Ten and an Elite 11 guy. He is a classic pro-style guy, but with better athleticism than Kirk Cousins. He can run a little bit and was a state qualifier in the high jump. He is kind of cut out of the same cloth as Kirk Cousins. He tried to emulate Cousins in a lot of ways being a team first guy that cares for his teammates. He's genuinely respected by his teammates in that regard. He does have some big shoes to fill and he was hurt for the last few weeks of spring ball, but he's going to be the guy next year and he's the guy they feel confident in."
How important is it that Michigan State gets their running game figured out? They've had the talent there the last couple of years, but they ranked towards the bottom in the league in rushing last season.
"I think that's huge. Even in the Nebraska game they were moving the ball on the ground in the first quarter and they just kind of got away from that. I think they've always wanted to be balanced 50-50 between the run and the pass, but they've gotten away from that a little bit. A lot of that had to do though with just who their players and personnel were. They had the tailbacks to do it last year, but the offensive line was patch work at best. By the end of the year they were running the football pretty well. I think they are going to be there this year because they have an offensive line that's very talented and has played together and they kind of took their lumps at the beginning of last year. I think that's going to be one of the strengths of this football team.
"As a pro-style offense, the goal is to have 200 yards rushing per game. That's kind of the bench mark and they think they can do that this year."
What would be the biggest concern for Michigan State right now coming out of the spring?
"I think it would be experience at the wide receiver position. It's not that there's a shortage of talent, because they have some talented players there. It's just the experience overall and that's where you get a little bit scared when you are playing against experienced defensive backs that can jump routes, because you don't have an experienced receivers to knock those guys off course. You just worry about guys being on the same page.
"That's the big thing is just the inexperience at the position is a lot like linebacker for Michigan State last year, not a lot of experience, but not short on talent. They've got the talent to get the job done, but experience is the biggest question and the biggest unknown right now for Michigan State."
What are the realistic win-loss expectations for this team when you look at them coming out of the spring?
"I think with where they are at as a program, I think 10 wins a season gives them kind of a sense of accomplishment. For really good teams it's hard to get to 10 wins, just because you need so many different breaks and unknowns. I know they want to continue to compete for a championship and they've been right there in terms of Big Ten championships the last few years. I think that's where they expect to be. I think they expect to compete for the Legends Division and I know there's a lot of motivation to take the next step and get to the Rose Bowl.
"I would think that 10 wins is realistic, but it's difficult when you look at the schedule, especially when you start out with Boise State, you've got Notre Dame on the schedule and you have to go to Michigan. It's going to be tough. The Nebraska game will not be easy either. There's going to be a lot of tight games for them this year."