Big Ten spring practice preview: Michigan State

Michigan State Spartans
2009: 6-7 (4-4)

Forgive Michigan State football fans if they haven’t realized that spring practice has already begun in East Lansing — they have a Final Four on their minds. But die-hard Spartans football fans were aware of the start of the spring season on March 23, if only because of the news the Spartans were making off the field.

As spring practice commenced, head coach Mark Dantonio was still dealing with the ramifications of the on-campus altercation at a residence hall in November involving 15 players. As a result of that incident, running back Glenn Winston and safety Roderick Jenrette were permanently dismissed from the team; running back Ashton Leggett and defensive end Jamiihr Williams transferred; and wide receiver Myles White reportedly is set to transfer. Ten other players were suspended, and just last week Dantonio officially reinstated four of them — wide receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, cornerback Chris L. Rucker and offensive tackle J’Michael Deane. Two others who weren’t charged but were at the scene of the altercation were also reinstated — receivers Chris D. Rucker and Donald Spencer. In all, six of the 15 have returned to the team.

“It’s been four months since these guys have taken part in any football activities,” Dantonio told reporters after the reinstatement last week. “Without question, it’s been a very long time. I feel like they’ve endured the football end of things, the judicial process and the public ridicule or whatever you want to call it.

“Guys make mistakes, guys pay the consequences, we move forward.”

For the Spartans, moving forward will not include another quarterback competition — if only because Keith Nichol won’t be taking too many snaps under center. The junior, who battled Kirk Cousins for the starting gig in 2009, will stay at wide receiver after being moved before last year’s Alamo Bowl because of the suspensions that rocked the receiving corps. After adding five to seven pounds of muscle and reducing his body fat, Nichol is a chiseled 6-2 and 220 pounds — well-prepared to be a standout Big Ten receiver. He’ll be joined by the reinstated Dell and Cunningham, who combined for 74 catches, 1,090 yards and five scores in 2009. Along with Keshawn Martin, the Spartans will boast one of the strongest receiving units in the conference.

Cousins, who started 12 games last season, will be backed up by redshirt freshman Andrew Maxwell. In his first year as a starter, Cousins passed for 2,680 yards with 19 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Now that he’s the established signal-caller, Cousins should be able to improve on those numbers and perform better in end-of-game situations.

At running back, sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker top the spring depth chart. Caper rushed for six touchdowns and 468 yards in ’09, but he averaged only 3.9 yards per carry. Baker, meanwhile, added one touchdown but averaged 5.0 yards per carry on only 85 rushes. They’ll be running behind an offensive line that must replace three fifth-year senior starters.

Without question, the biggest concern for MSU is its defense, particularly the secondary. Losing five players from an atrocious defensive backfield isn’t such a bad thing, especially because depth remains from Dantonio’s last few signing classes. While competition will be fierce for the open cornerback spot opposite Chris L. Rucker, both starting safeties, Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde, return to add veteran presence.

The linebacker corps will be the strength of the Spartans’ defense next fall. All-American and Big Ten co-defensive player of the year Greg Jones returns for his senior year, and the 6-1 athletic ‘backer added 15 pounds since last fall. Jones is one of 13 players on defense returning with game experience. Senior Eric Gordon and sophomore Chris Norman round out a linebacking crew that will be one of the best in the conference.

For the Spartans to challenge the upper-tier teams in the Big Ten, they’ll need to be much better up front on both sides of the ball, which has been one of the most disappointing aspects of recent MSU teams.

The Spartans will earn another bowl berth, but how far can Dantonio take this team? Will he be able to contend for a Big Ten title sooner rather than later, and can his players remain committed on and — most importantly — off the field?

Coming tomorrow: Lane Kiffin begins his journey in year one at USC.

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