football Edit

Spartans ready to reload for another title run

With spring practices finally all wrapping up around the country, HuskerOnline.com continues our look at where each of Nebraska's 12 opponents in 2015 currently stand coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer. Today, we check in on the Michigan State Spartans, who come to Lincoln on Nov. 7 for a nationally televised showdown on either ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.
To get a feel for where the Spartans stand heading into their ninth season under head coach Mark Dantonio, we spoke with Jim Comparoni of SpartanMag.com to get his thoughts and perspective on the team and what to expect once the season gets underway in a few months.
Spring overview
As is usually the case with most top-level college programs, Michigan State lost quite a bit of talent from last season to the NFL, as four players were selected in the first five rounds and three others went on to sign undrafted rookie free agent deals. The Spartans still feature one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten Conference this year in senior Connor Cook, as well as one of its best offensive lines in years in front of him.
However, the Spartans have some awfully big holes to fill at the skill positions around Cook. In particular, MSU must replace last year's leading rusher in Jeremy Langford (fourth round, Chicago Bears), Cook's No. 1 receiving target Tony Lippett (fifth round, Miami Dolphins), and fellow wide out Keith Mumphery (fifth round, Houston Texans).
Like always, Michigan State should be loaded on defense, especially on a defensive line that features potentially four future pros in the starting lineup and could be the best front four Dantonio has ever had at MSU, according to Comparoni. The talent is certainly there at linebacker and in the secondary, but questions still remain as far as whether MSU will be able to reload after losing some key pieces, particularly cornerback and No. 11 overall pick Trae Waynes.
Returning starters
While the search for new skill players was a primary focus for Michigan State this spring, the offensive line helped ease a lot of worries the Spartans may have had. A group that Phil Steele rated as the No. 7 offensive line in the country going into the 2015 season will be led by likely eventual first-round draft pick Jack Conklin at left tackle and Rimingington Award finalist Jack Allen at center.
The competition at running back this spring was primarily between redshirt sophomore Gerald Holmes and redshirt freshman Madre London, and senior receiver Aaron Burbridge looks to be the favorite to emerge as Cook's new No. 1 despite missing the second half of spring ball with a "lower body injury".
Two-time All-American Shilique Calhoun highlights what Comparoni called a "national championship defensive line" that also features potential high draft picks Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell inside at tackle. At linebacker, Riley Bullough - younger brother of former MSU first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough - leads a solid group. The secondary must replace Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond, but Darian Hicks returns at cornerback while Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson lead the way at safety.
Offensive star: QB Connor Cook
This one is pretty much a no-brainer, especially given the lack of proven players around Cook at the other skill positions. Cook gives Michigan State a third-year starter at quarterback who has a resume that features accolades such as Big Ten Championship game and Rose Bowl MVP honors.
Since his breakout season as a freshman two years ago, Cook has seemingly gotten better with every game, and he's now projected by many to be one of the top quarterbacks on the board for the 2016 NFL Draft next spring. But there is still a lot for him to prove, and as long as he can get some weapons to develop around him, Cook should be in for another big year, especially with the offensive line he has protecting him.
Defensive star: DE Shilique Calhoun
Michigan State's other projected 2016 first-round draft pick, Calhoun comes into the season as one of the biggest defensive names not only in the Big Ten, but in all of college football. Even though his production dropped a bit last year from his Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year season as a sophomore, Calhoun remains one of the most dangerous defensive ends in the league.
It certainly helps Calhoun that the Spartans have so much talent along side him on the defensive line, as that should free him up for more one-on-one blocking match-ups that could lead to a spike in his sack numbers in 2015.
Spring surprise: TE Jamal Lyles
Junior tight end Jamal Lyles only had five catches for 74 yards last season, but he emerged as a potential key weapon for Michigan State's offense during spring practice. At 6-3, 260, Lyles brings size and athleticism to the tight end position, and he even spent some time at linebacker and defensive end before settling in on the other side of the ball.
He's improved his blocking enough to where he can stay on the field longer this season, and Lyles possesses deceptive straight line speed that could cause match-up problems for some opposing linebackers and safeties.
Best spring position battle: Running back
With Langford now moved on after serving as Michigan State's workhorse at running back the past two seasons, this spring was all about finding his replacement. The problem was the Spartans' next two leading rushers from 2014 are also gone to graduation (Nick Hill) and suspension (Delton Williams), leaving MSU with almost no experience in the backfield heading into spring ball.
Holmes and London got the bulk of the workload this spring, but incoming freshman Larry Scott - a four-star prospect ranked the No. 6 running back in the 2015 class - will join the mix this fall to kick the competition up a few more notches. At this point, Comparoni feels Holmes has the lead going into fall camp, but he's going to have to continue to earn that spot all year long.
Biggest question: Will there be a drop off at cornerback?
Even though Michigan State is losing a player in Waynes who was the first defensive back taken in last month's NFL Draft, the depth at the cornerback position isn't so much a situation of concern as it is a question of how long it will take the next group to fill some pretty big shoes.
Considering this is a unit that two years ago featured two of the best at their position in Waynes and Darqueze Dennard, the standard for MSU cornerbacks is fairly higher than it is with most other schools. Can guys like Hicks, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson reach that level? Time will tell, but having so much talent in the front seven and at safety should help take some of the pressure off as they continue to develop over the course of the year.
Early outlook on Michigan State vs. Nebraska
Comparoni: "You know what, I had a better feel for it last year. With the new coaching staff (at Nebraska), it's hard to really know what to expect. But playing on the road, it's always tough to try and go down there and win. Really tough. I have no idea what it's going to look like with the new coach there, but the timing works out pretty well for Michigan State because it's sandwiched between home games with Indiana and Maryland, even though it's on the road. Michigan State has been pretty good at winning games where they're favored, and I would assume they'll be favored in that one. But if Nebraska is another nine or 10-win team like it has been, that's a game Michigan State can not afford to take lightly."
Overall 2015 win-loss expectations
Comparoni: "Like I said, Michigan State has been really consistent in winning the games they're supposed to win for four of the last five years. I think it's the physicality and the sharpness of the defense that gives you a chance to be consistent every week. They rarely stub their toe. I can't think of many times that they have. So the thought iss that they'll keep doing that, they'll keep winning the winnable games and keep winning when they're favored. You look at the schedule, they're going to be favored a lot. Everybody around here is preoccupied with the game at home against Oregon in the second week of the season and the second-to-last game they have with Ohio State. That's a lot to ask to go 11-1 and beat Oregon or Ohio State, but that's kind of what they've been the last few years. So the expectation and feeling is, rightly or wrongly, that that level of operation is going to continue."
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